An Ealing beekeeper at Thanksgiving in Wake Forest, North Carolina

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The last of autumn’s leaves fell as my plane departed London Heathrow leaving behind grey skies and rain. Sunshine and blue skies awaited my arrival at Raleigh Durham.

Welcome to fall in North Carolina where forests splash the landscape with dramatic oranges and reds, and dazzling mirror-like lakes reflect the vibrant colours of turning trees.

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Last month I was invited to Thanksgiving by good friends, Alison and Rick, who live in Wake Forest in Wake County, located north of Raleigh, the state capital of North Carolina. Wake Forest is a beautiful, historic town surrounded by forests, woods, meadows and lakes. The climate is subtropical with hot, humid summers, mild winters (relatively) and boasting temperatures of around 20°C in spring and autumn. I felt that the days were warm and the nights were frosty; my friends ‘reckoned’ it was ‘so cold it was gonna snow’.

I was lucky to stay at Ali and Rick’s beautiful home and to explore the surrounding woods and forests. I set myself the challenge of keeping my camera on manual mode for the entire trip to capture the incredible range of colours, textures and lights of North Carolina.

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As well as its human inhabitants, Wake Forest is home to many forest animals including squirrels, deer, coyotes and a wide variety of birds; the mountainous region of North Carolina even has bears! The red cardinal, the official state bird, was a frequent visitor to the bird table. I found that forest wildlife was less bold than London’s urban wildlife and rather shy of having their picture taken!

I was also excited to see red squirrels, which I’ve never seen in London!

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The clearings in the woods behind the house, where we took the dogs for walks, were heavily populated by stripy, stingy insects that Ali called ‘bees’.

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… but closer inspection revealed that they were wasps. I wasn’t entirely sure, but one photo tweeted later confirmed that they were yellow jackets, the common name in North America for a predatory and temperamental wasp. Poor bees, falsely accused!

We also came across lots of lovely pine cones in the woods, perfect fuel for beekeeping smokers.

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While I didn’t spot a bee, it wasn’t long until I met a beekeeper.

A meeting of beekeepers

Ali suggested a visit to the North Carolina State Farmers Market where I spotted the beekeeper’s stall almost immediately!

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Here I met Berry the Beeman, a crop pollinator and beekeeper of Bee Blessed Pure Honey. Berry teaches children about bees and was happy to share stories about his hives. He likes to keep some Carniolan colonies, because they are gentle in nature, and he often gets Kona queens from Hawaii, because they breed fast and are, apparently, very big bees! (He may have been pulling my leg.) My hive partner, Emily, and I prefer big queen bees because they are much easier to spot on the frame!

Berry invited Ali and me to sample his honey crop. The clary sage honey was mildly floral and delicately textured, while the basswood was powerful and tangy with complex layers. ‘As you know, no two honeys should taste the same,’ said Berry, who told us that clary sage and clover have replaced the tobacco fields as major forage for honeybees in North Carolina. I would like to have tasted tobacco honey!

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The Beeman, who reminded me of Ealing’s beekeepers, would have been at home sitting at the apiary table drinking tea and eating cake on a Saturday afternoon, so I told him a little bit about our association. When I mentioned that John Chapple, a mentor to many new beekeepers, often tastes interesting and exotic varieties of honeys on his travels, Berry said he should try the basswood honey; Ali excitedly threw in ‘He is the queen’s beekeeper!’

I bought three jars of honey for John, Andy and Pat, who always help Emily, me and others with our hives; you can see what they thought in the epilogue to this post. Berry’s stall was very popular, so after buying my honey and asking for a photo we moved on to look at the Christmas trees.

Guess who’s coming to dinner?

Thanksgiving was an amazing affair – I have never seen so much food even at Christmas! Traditionally a harvest festival, Thanksgiving is now celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November in America; being English this was my first Thanksgiving Dinner. Rick is an excellent cook who made sure that I got the best experience of this American holiday. Turkey, bacon, stuffing, mashed potato, sweet potato and marshmallows, squash, cous cous, jello, green bean casserole, three kinds of dessert… they would have to roll me back on the plane to England!

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All that eating, drinking and being thankful was followed by more forest trails to walk off the Girl Scout cookies Thin Mints.

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My last two days in North Carolina were spent exploring historic Wake Forest downtown where it seems that the British had been before.

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As everyone knows, an Ealing beekeeper is 80% tea and 20% cake so a cuppa in The Olde English Tea Room was obligatory. It was lovely inside – like a cosy tea room in the West Country, except that the cucumber sandwiches and lavender tea were much nicer! The atmosphere was warm and friendly, I love those southern accents!

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The antebellum southern architecture of downtown was reminiscent of sprawling plantation properties and ranch-style houses with beautiful wood panelling, gabled roofs and huge balconies. I also liked the random planting of ornamental cabbages in flower beds – very accommodating for friendly neighbourhood insect pollinators. Local councils in London could take note!

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Rain clouds loomed on the morning before my flight back to London and provided the perfect photographic backdrop for my tour of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Cobalt blue skies and bright sunshine are beautiful, but not always the best conditions for taking photos. Overcast conditions provide interesting contrasts and hues.

The Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary was established in 1950 on the campus of Wake Forest University. The campus and college buildings have an older history dating back to the 1800s, and tours of the picturesque grounds are available on Tuesday and Friday mornings. I am always fascinated to find out the history, culture and architecture of the places that I visit. My tour was led by Josh who told me all about the tobacco fields that once grew in Wake Forest, the migration of the original college to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and the inception of the seminary, which has an impressive international programme. I was rather envious of his travels.

Like everywhere in Wake Forest, the seminary was very friendly and, after my tour, I was free to explore the grounds and take photos of the elegant buildings, pretty gardens and a gnarly, twisted, old tree that I found particularly interesting!

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All too soon it was time to say farewell to Wake Forest and to the new friends that I had made there. The warmth of days was matched only by the southern hospitality and the charm of the people of North Carolina. I look forward to when I can return.

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A huge thank you to Ali and Rick who welcomed me into their home and to their friends, Lydia, Heather, Carol, Jen and Mickey who made me feel like part of the family.

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Epilogue

Back in Blighty, I am no longer worried about crossing the road, but everything looks smaller. Gazing out of my window at the Royal College of Physicians, the trees in Regent’s Park look like saplings compared to the tall pines and oaks of Wake Forest. It is also so cold that it has actually snowed.

At the apiary everyone was interested to hear about my trip to the States over a pot of tea and Emily’s homemade chocolate cake. I gave John, Andy and Pat their Bee Blessed Pure Honey, and John and Pat wasted no time tucking in.

Ealing beeks eating honey

(L-R) Who needs spoons? Pat and John tuck in to alfalfa and basswood honeys from Berry the Beeman, North Carolina.

My Facebook album of Thanksgiving in Wake Forest, North Carolina, is available to view here.

Related links

Wake Forest, North Carolina

North Carolina State Farmers Market

Bee Blessed Pure Honey.

Berry the Beeman

The Olde English Tea Room

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

On the trail of honey and dust in Rome

When Rosemary, a lovely beekeeper at our apiary, gave me a book about the true story of a man who discovers the wonders of bees and honey on a farm in Italy, I packed it in my flight bag for a trip to Rome. I should have sub-titled this post: ‘A beekeeper in Rome’, because it is the story of my Roman holiday and the book that accompanied my travels.

Honey and Dust: Travels in search of sweetness by Piers Moore Ede begins as Piers, a young British environmentalist writer, is seriously injured in a hit-and-run accident in San Francisco and loses sense of his life’s purpose. He goes to recuperate on a farm owned by a beekeeper in Italy and rediscovers his passion for life with the help of Gunther and his bees.

Hillside views seen from the Colleseum. The opening chapters of Honey and Dust set in rural Italy were exciting in-flight reading on my way to Rome.

One sunny afternoon, Piers and Gunther take a walk, through a copse of trees, to a thicket of rosemary bushes, to where Gunther keeps his beehives. The gentle Italian bees are busy foraging nectar from the heavy-scented rosemary, ‘Rosmarino. Strong honey’. Gunther cuts a wedge of honeycomb from one of the hives to share with Piers:

‘That was my first taste of honey straight from a hive. We stood there in the clearing, with the afternoon sun warm upon our faces, honey running down our fingers, and let the sweetness wash over our tongues. The honey, indeed, had a strong taste of rosemary, and to see the spiny green bushes right beside us, and then to taste the result here and now, was by no means any great scientific discovery, but it felt strangely wonderful – like an insight into the order of things.’

It is a magical moment for the reader too, and I knew then that I would love this book. By the time our plane landed in Rome, I had joined Piers in the Middle East as he began his quest to find and taste the world’s most wondrous honeys.

A beekeeper in Rome

Rome is an amazing city. The ancient world sits comfortably with the modern world. It has style and glamour alongside history and tradition. The coffee is amazing too.

Rome – The Eternal City.

The story of the ages is told on every street. Here is the Colleseum.

The Papal Swiss Guard at Vatican City is the only Swiss Guard that still exists.

Ah, Roma! Romance in Rome as we come across an Italian TV crew filming a love story.

I like tea not coffee. Italian coffee is delicious!

Sitting with my friends in a cafe overlooking the Colleseum, I reflected how my journey was similar to Piers: exploring a vibrant and beautiful world which in parts has vanished.

A disappearing world

Honey flowed like rivers in ancient times. The Romans were Master Beekeepers with a particular fondness for thyme honey. Virgil and Pliny expounded the health-giving virtues of this golden nectar, and wrote detailed descriptions of beekeeping and the qualities of bees. However, Virgil thought queen bees were kings and warned of finding king cells in hives. The art of beekeeping declined in Ancient Rome with the fall of the Roman Empire.

Piers’ first stop on his tour of the world of apiculture is Beirut, but sadly he encounters varroa early in his journey. Wadih Yazbek, the son of a famous Lebanese beekeeper, explains that the honey-gathering traditions of the mountains was a practice of happier times:

‘It is not just us, the people, who have suffered in this last century. The land itself has taken many savage blows. And the wild bees, in consequence, have grown quiet. Of course, we beekeepers make sure that the bees survive – but in the wild, in caves and trees, they no longer make their homes as they used to. The varroa mite has hit us badly here.’

Piers’ realisation that the honeybees of the wild and domesticated hives are disappearing as colony after colony is ravaged by varroa makes his quest to find honey even sweeter. I finished reading the chapters in the Middle East as our first day in Rome came to an end, sitting in the beautiful gardens of Villa Borghese and enjoying very good Italian ice cream.

Villa Borghese is the second largest public park in Rome with beautiful landscaped gardens and an enchanting lake.

The Temple of Asclepius, the god of medicine, stands in the centre of the lake.

There are hidden fountains…

… and secret terrapin pools.

Vatican – the city of angels and demons

The next day we visited the Vatican – a city in a city – and I heard rumour that the pope keeps his own hives. While I didn’t see a bee, the Vatican experience can only be described as pure sensory overload. You need a guide, and a day, to see the Vatican.

Once inside, I used an entire 8GB memory card on my SLR and it was worth every shot. The highlight was Michaelangelo’s breathtaking Sistine Chapel, which is – indescribable. However, filming is forbidden inside the Sistine Chapel to protect the incandescent artwork, and because the Vatican owns the copyright. I wonder what Michaelangelo would have thought of that?

Inside the Vatican – a hall of gold and light.

Art so beautiful and breathtaking.

Gods and goddesses…

Angels…

… and demons.

Afterwards, we sat quietly inside a family-run restaurant and digested all that we had seen and heard. As a storm threatened to break the sunshine, we were invited to stay past closing time to share a complementary bowl of cherries and limoncello.

I took a peek inside my book to see what Piers was doing in Nepal. What struck me as I read Honey and Dust was the easy connections that Piers made with everyone he met. Whether visiting noisy war-torn capitals or the rooftop of the world, people warm to the young writer and invite him into their homes to share a unique insight into their hidden lives.

Out of the storm – we are welcomed into a family restaurant.

Limoncello and cherries! A risky combination.

That evening we climbed the turrets of Castel Sant’Angelo, went for tapas and enjoyed drinks in a restaurant opposite the Pantheon. I went to bed exhausted, and not sure if I was excited to wake for Rome or Piers’ trek with Nepalese honey hunters through dense forests.

The Pantheon by moonlight.

Italian wine best enjoyed on a warm evening in Rome.

Falling in love with Rome 

On Sunday morning we stumbled across mass at the Pantheon on our way to the Fountain de Trevi. The Pantheon is one of the best preserved buildings of Ancient Rome. The rotunda uses an intricate honeycombed structure of hidden chambers to strengthen its walls.

I stood at the entrance of the Pantheon watching as thousands of rose petals were poured through the oculi of the dome and tumbled down the shafts of sunlight.

The Pantheon was built to honour all the gods of Ancient Rome.

Rose petals falling from the oculi during mass.

The breathtaking Fountain de Trevi.

After tossing a coin in the waters of the Fountain de Trevi to make a wish, we separated to take our own mini adventures before meeting for lunch at the Campo de’ Fiori, or the Square of Flowers.

Picturesque streets.

Pastoral scenes.

Wall flowers.

City views.

People-watching.

I arrived before my friends and sat in the shade enjoying Sicilian lemonade with a spot of people-watching and reading.

Intrepid travellers

Piers was doing some people-watching of his own, sitting with laughing Nepalese children as intrepid honey hunters scaled a mountainside. The passage was the most absorbing in the book. It was incredible to imagine that this is how beekeepers in faraway parts of the world collect honey. Piers’ own life and brush with death is brought into perspective:

‘At times I could barely watch. The margin for error was simply too small. Every man here had his life in the balance, and yet the seeming levity with which they worked made it seem as if they didn’t care. It brought my own small encounter with mortality into the sharpest focus. Did these men fear death so little because of its constant proximity in their lives? And why do we, in the developed world, fear death so much? It also highlighted, as clearly as anything could, just how far man will go for the sensation of sweetness on his tongue. Quite simply, they were prepared to risk their lives for it.’

Once collected, wild Nepalese honey presents a further risk from the deadly rhododendron flowers that the bees forage in spring. Piers waits for the honey hunters to taste-test their hard-won nectar before sipping the ‘wondrous toxic honey’ with traces of poisonous pollen. He soon feels the effects:

‘It resembled drunkenness at first, but then became visual, like a magic mushroom trip I remembered from university. Painted dots were dripping across my irises like technicolor rain. My body felt light and tingly, filled with warm rushes and heat-bursts. It was wild and strangely wonderful.’

The relentless afternoon heat in Rome made my friends and me feel a little dazed, so we took Sunday afternoon at a slower pace and wandered past the Spanish Steps. As a Londoner I appreciated a city that was bustling but also relaxed. Italians seem to take life at their own pace and there is always time for coffee and cake.

Egyptian obelisk at Campo de’ Fiori (the British didn’t take this one).

Roman soldiers.

The Spanish Steps.

My Bulgarian friend Dani, mistaken for the mysterious ‘Russian lady’, charms the local police for a photo. If you arrest us, can we stay?

Return to the dust world

I finished reading Honey and Dust before our flight back to London, following Piers’ spiritual journey through Sri Lanka and India. In-flight entertainment was offered by re-reading the passages that describe the secret life inside the hive:

‘It all starts with nectar,* a sweet, sticky substance produced by flowers, and loved, above all, by bees. Probing inside the flower, the bee sucks up this sugary substance and stores it in a ‘honey sac’ – essentially a second stomach. Flitting from flower to flower until the honey sac is full, the bee then returns to the hive…  One jar of honey is also the result of about 80,000 trips between flower and hive, the result of about 55,000 miles of flight, and the nectar from around 2 million flowers.’

Back home in London, I missed Rome but I was left with wonderful memories and Honey and Dust would forever be indelibly entwined with my trip.

The Vatican in light and shadow.

As a beekeeper, I found Nepal to be the real beating heart of the book, which brought to life the ancient practices of our craft carefully preserved by forest tribes who are themselves fading from the roar of encroaching civilisation.

Honey and Dust is an enchanting read that I highly recommend to beekeepers and to anyone who is interested bees and honey, but with a word of warning that once tasted you will become addicted to the sweet world of the bee.

A final word on Rome – you will love it.

Related links

Honey and Dust: Travels in search of sweetness
Piers Moore Ede
Published by Bloomsbury, London: 2006
ISBN 0-7475-7967-9