Appalachia Appalachian Dialect Pap

Course the Bees

Papaw Wade Wilson

Papaw Wade blowing his fox horn

course verb To trace or follow (esp bees to their hive).
1926 Hunnicutt Twenty Years 73 I told him I was going to course the bees. 1950 Woody Cataloochee Homecoming 13 He could “course” a bee with an unerring eye, and he seldom got a sting. 1976 Carroll and Pulley Little Cataloochee 18 He was an expert in searching out bee trees and had the ability to course bees into hives for the purpose of producing honey.

~Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English


I’ve always wanted bees. When I first started wishing for them several years ago, Pap told me keeping bees was a lot of work. He knew because when he was a boy he had to help his father, my Papaw Wade, with his bees.

Back in those days most folks didn’t order their bees like they do today, instead they found the bees in the wild and managed to capture them. Sometimes the bees were in a swarm and they were easy to capture, other times the coursing method described in the definition above was used.

You can read about some of the items that were used as bee gums or hives in those days on this website. Pap said Papaw Wade used a hollow log for his bee gum.

One time I was talking about bees when we were down at Pap’s big garden. Pap said “If you really want bees you can find your own.” I said “How in the world would I do that?” Pap went on to explain how Papaw Wade would wait by a stream of water, usually a creek. As he sat patiently he kept his eyes open for honey bees that were visiting the water source. Once he saw a bee he began following it back to where it came from, hopefully to it’s hive.

I said “That sounds impossible.” Pap said “Well it does but if that’s the only hope you had of getting bees and you knew it would work and you were determined then it is possible.” Still disbelieving the possibility of coursing bees, I said “But how in the world would you follow them?”

Pap said sometimes his father would carry a bucket of water into the woods where he last saw the bee and sit patiently until the bees found his temporary source of water and begin coursing the bee from that point. By continuing to move the water he came closer and closer until he eventually found the hive.

Even after hearing of Papaw Wade’s bee coursing experiences I still found the process hard to believe. Pap understood my skepticism by saying “You’re right it’s a mighty hard job to do and not a job that can be done quickly. You have to have patience a plenty. Patience, good eyesight, and quick reflexes. Why the only one of us that could even attempt it now would be Mark.”

My nephew Mark was still in high school when Pap and I had that conversation. Mark graduated from Yale in May-not bad for a boy who grew up in a holler in Appalachia.

I still wish I had bees or at least the determination to try and course them myself.



You Might Also Like


  • Reply
    May 18, 2017 at 7:49 am

    My father loved bees, and the bees seemed to know this and appreciate his feelings. He grew up in the hills of eastern Kentucky. Dad kept bees and often worked around them without any sort of protective clothing or even using smoke. I never knew him to be stung. He would collect a swarm on the way home from work by simply snipping or sawing off the limb, and placing it (or gently scraping them off if it was too big a limb) in a box or bucket. He also coursed bees, though he always referred to it as “lining” bees. Dad had marvelous eyesight. He would start with a bee leaving a flower and heading back toward the hive. When he lost track of that first bee, he stood and waited, watching that same airspace until he saw another bee heading home, and he’d continue following, bee after bee, until he found their hollow tree hive. It sounds impossible, I know. But I’ve watched him line a half frozen bees to locate a hive in maybe an hour.

  • Reply
    Harry Adams
    July 1, 2016 at 1:41 pm

    Honey bees seem to find me wherever I go. We lived in mid South Carolina. We built a new house in the country. We came home from church one Sunday and found bees in the house. A swarm had set up homesteading in the eaves of the house. The bees came into the house by crawling through the little screw hole where the light fixture was held in place. Clemson Extension service was worthless on information on how to get them out, so I drilled holes in the wall and used bug bombs. As much as I don’t like harming bees, I don’t want to sleep with them.
    This was an every year occurrence until we remodeled the house and tore out the area that they had built the original hive in. The next year they moved to my daughter’s playhouse.
    We moved to Ohio and eventually bought an old farm house built in 1826. The first year after buying it bees started building in the chimney.
    We built new house below the old one and about a month after moving into it a swarm arrived on a bush outside the front porch. The wife had a co worker who had had bees and she came and corralled the swarm before they came into the house.
    I now have a local keeper with 9 hives located close to the creek and away from our house. I stay away as they dislike me for all the past killings. I’ve been stung 5 times when walking 10 feet away from them.
    I have found that some exterminators have found a method of vacuuming them out of a building and saving them.
    One other item on bees. Our fathers old home place in SC had a large water oak on it near where an old barn stood. A grass fire burned the barn and the old water oak. A large hive was in the hollow tree. Honey ran out of the tree for several days as it smoldered inside.

  • Reply
    June 29, 2016 at 8:57 pm

    Always heard what a job raising bees is. Very glad that we have several bee keepers in our area. Nothing like fresh honey on hot biscuits straight out of the oven! Congratulations to Mark on his graduation from Yale. It always makes me proud when someone from Appalachia works hard and realizes their college dream! It won’t be long and the Pressley Girls will be graduating too. Time surely flies!

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    June 29, 2016 at 8:31 pm

    Bees are much easier to find than acorns. Just take off your shoes and stroll through a patch of clover.

  • Reply
    June 29, 2016 at 7:14 pm

    Hi Tipper,Look up killer bees in NC.God Bless.Jean

  • Reply
    Rev. Rose Marie "RB" Redmond
    June 29, 2016 at 6:39 pm

    Our brother-in-law and sister in Myrtle Beach keep bees, and their oldest son and daughter-in-law in Greenville do too. I believe they got theirs from studying up, building hive boxes, and then waiting for someone to call to have a troublesome hive extricated from somewhere. Our BIL even got one out of the siding of a church once, and his son, our nephew, shot one out of a tree with a shotgun, and it fell right down into the bee box he’d set beneath the branch. (Now that’s good shooting, that is. LOL).
    Now I’ve often been able to walk right through a flight of bees without getting stung, but Bro Tom has trouble with them; I swear they chase him down to sting him, and he’s allergic to them so I keep a couple of bottles of liquid Benadryl in the cabinet all the time, just in case he does get stung.
    Praying everyone’s having a great week, and a safe one too.
    God bless.

  • Reply
    June 29, 2016 at 6:36 pm

    Tipper, just the time I have been following your blog…I would say that YOU will find your bees and we will enjoy reading all about it! Would love some of that honey!

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    June 29, 2016 at 4:56 pm

    One thing Pap told you is very true, keeping bees is hard work, my Dad loved keeping them and could course a be with uncanny ease as he had perfect eye sight but he sometimes used flour to dust a bee who was watering then followed her to the tree. In fact when Dad graduated from Almond High School he was awarded a scholarship to a small agricultural college in Rome Ga. but helping his widowed mother with two younger brothers then WWII aborted his attending college. Dad always worked so much of the work scraping frames and supers then placing starter in the frames fell to me and my Mom. I helped Dad rob the bees from the time I was a young boy and also helped cut Bee Trees and “Hive ” the bees, if you could locate the Queen this usually went well since the rest of the bees would follow her into the Hive Body once you placed her into it. The worst time we had was once when Dad had coursed a bee to a hollow Black Gum on top of a rock quarry across the river from our house, when we cut the tree it kicked backwards off the stump and fell backwards and fell roughly 50 yards to the bottom of the quarry; this was a mad bunch of bees, we didn’t get them hived until just before dark. I was stung many times without consequence but had an allergic reaction when I was around fifteen, shortly after this the Little Tennessee River flooded so rapidly that we couldn’t get to our sixty hives which were located in our pasture below our house and we were completely put out of bee business. This was the flood which swept out the Swinging Bridge at Needmore and was a result of a massive cloud burst between Highlands and Franklin and washed out several homes above Franklin. The bees helped us through some hard times through the sale of mostly Sourwood Honey and we always had plenty of honey to eat.

  • Reply
    Jane Bolden
    June 29, 2016 at 4:17 pm

    Don’t know much about beekeeping except what I read in The Secret Lives of Bees. I know everyone is proud of your nephew. BTW, Grandpa Wade was very handsome. He wouldn’t look out of place in the 21st century.

  • Reply
    anita griffith
    June 29, 2016 at 3:20 pm

    As a boy I’ve coursed bees with my uncle.He was good at it.One day we found a hive in a hollow poplar tree.He marked the tree as his find.That was common practice in my part of Ky. to let anyone else that might find the tree,that it was already claimed.

  • Reply
    June 29, 2016 at 2:35 pm

    There use to be a huge bee tree just above our camping site called “the cleanout”.
    We had no use for bees or honey, so my brother and I told a local “moonshiner” where
    this place was. Hub Holloway sold Sourwood Honey anyway and had bees behind his store. We were by his place a couple weeks later and he had a sign out “fresh mountain honey.” He thanked us for the information and had done cut down the tree than held lots of Mountain Honey…Ken

  • Reply
    John Faircloth
    June 29, 2016 at 1:44 pm

    As a young minister living in Surrey County, NC, at the foot of the Blue Ridge, I realized my dream of keeping bees. I met an old “Beeman” near home who managed nearly 200 hives, and he kindly taught me what I needed to know. It was a rich relationship. My first crop of Sourwood Honey was so clear you could read the church bulletin through a quart jar of the stuff. I became convinced that on Sunday night, for Supper, God would eat hot biscuits with sourwood honey.
    Tip, you may want to turn to one of your girls for the fortitude to get started. They seem willing to take on most challenges. It is easy to start small. I would also suggest that bees from a commercial apiary will be less likely to be diseased.
    Can you do it? Yes you can!

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    June 29, 2016 at 1:24 pm

    My daddy had several hives of bees up on Wiggins Creek. I was young and don’t remember him ever working the bees but I do remember the equipment he had. He had a pith helmet with a curtain around it and a pucker string to secure it around his neck. He wore ordinary clothes but he wore gloves with long cuffs which were tied at the top. He had the smoker that he put rags in and set afire. When it was closed it fire would smolder and when he need smoke there was a bellows thing that when pushed would produce a puff of smoke. He had knives, scrapers and combs to work in and on the hives.
    Daddy’s bees all died out but for one hive. That one survived several years after the others had died out. But then one day two little boys dared their little sister to climb up on the beehive and pee. Soon afterward we had no bees.

  • Reply
    June 29, 2016 at 11:25 am

    Keeping bees is one adventure I am happy to leave to others, and there are so many beekeepers in my area that I always have a local source. That said, coursing the bees sounds like a very good excuse – I mean “reason” of course! – to spend hours sitting by water in the woods. I think I’ll try it today 😉

  • Reply
    Rooney Floyd
    June 29, 2016 at 9:53 am

    I would encourage you not to give up on finding you a bee hive because, sometimes even a blind pig can find an acorn…

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    June 29, 2016 at 9:34 am

    Tipper—One trick that was often done to course bees involved use of a bit of flour at a watering source. Apparently they would pick up a bit of white and that made them easier to see. Also, I’m pretty sure that bee coursers made a habit of “salting” a spot, usually on sand along a branch or in a trail, to attract them and thereby get a starting point. I strongly suspect that a good many of your readers have seen butterflies or bees “puddling” at such locations. Usually it is where a horse has peed in the trail. They are drawn, for some reason, to the salt.
    You have at least one reader, Lisa Snuggs, who has been a beekeeper in the past, and I’m going to embarrass her by telling a bee story on her. One day her teenaged nephew and a friend of a similar age accompanied her on an excursion to the hives. It was a hot summer day and she just wore a T-shirt without a bra. A bee or bees got under her T-shirt and she had to have some relief through shucking off her T-shirt. She turned to the boys quickly, explained the situation, and said “Turn your heads.” Her nephew’s buddy promptly replied: “Which way?”
    Also, and there is at least one story and maybe more in a book or books of his, one of America’s all-time great outdoor writers, Havilah Babcock, was a beekeeper. If you want details on him and his books, which carry wonderful titles such as I Don’t Want to Shoot an Elephant and My Health Is Better in November (he was a bird hunter, hence the titles), let me know and I’ll do a bit of digging.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    Charles Fletcher
    June 29, 2016 at 9:33 am

    94 Years ago.
    While growing up in the mountains
    Of Western North Carolina I learned
    To do many things from the old timers. One was how to locate a bee
    tree. We would fins where the bees
    were getting water. When the were on the water we would sprinkle flower on
    their wings, watch the time it would
    take them to return for more water.
    We then walked toward the way they
    Left the water until we located the tree
    They were storing their honey. After
    Preparations were made for a Bee hive we would cut the tree, place them in their new home and take the honey.
    Simple and time consuming but it always got the job done.
    Charles Fletcher

  • Reply
    Mrs. K
    June 29, 2016 at 9:29 am

    I’ve always wanted bees too. Interesting to read this.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    June 29, 2016 at 9:24 am

    Love this post…I love honey bees…I try to keep fresh water for the bees around the garden….
    I have heard my Grandfather use the term ….”course” in relation to finding a wild hive…He kept bees and knew them well…He said the workers would always fly in a straight line…? evidently bee-line! ha
    I saw him take a pan and spoon, rap the pan in a certain way, lean the ladder against a big ole cherry tree, climb up and bring down the big ball of bees….He made us kids get far away so we wouldn’t get stung….He had a new hive ready before capturing these bees…He was so excited to get a another new hive and queen….
    My Dad said, they used sugar water to follow and course bees….I don’t know If all this is true….sometimes Dad liked to make us kids look wide-eyed and also try to impress our Grandfather with the tales from his side of the family…ha He said they would take a mason jar out to the field where bees were feeding….capture a few bees, dust them with just a bit of flour or powdered sugar, let them go and course them. He too, said no matter where you took them in the jar to release them, that they would always fly back to the gum in the woods in a straight line….
    Better half also wants a hive of bees….His Dad kept bees, so he knows a little bit about beekeeping!
    Thanks Tipper,
    PS…Rain all around us, but we got none….our tomatoes are our only hope….maybe taters and okra!
    The only cucumbers that are doing ok are the
    Markemores…and they are starting to spike due to the drought…
    The Specialty (Green Apple) cucumbers…bloomed and bloomed….no cucumbers…too hot….
    The Suyo cucumbers (Asian long green)…made beautiful vines and cukes, but now won’t grow…curling and spiking from the heat and drought.
    I will send pictures when I can..

  • Reply
    June 29, 2016 at 8:53 am

    The family must be mighty proud of Mark! Let’s hope he never forgets that holler and it’s people are responsible for who he is today. Yale only worked from a foundation that was already poured.
    We have always had bees. I guess I was too young and dumb to appreciate them then. I would take the honey from large pans and place it in quart jars to give to friends and family. My fear of robbing the gums is the only thing that keeps me from having bees now.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    June 29, 2016 at 8:38 am

    Rang my bell this AM. Bee hunting was our summertime, Sunay afternoon fun. Generally speaking, bees will get water at the closest place from the hive and will fly straight back when they can. However, they usually fly in a spiral as they rise until they clear the trees, then line out on the path home. So one needs to be able to see them until they do that to get the correct ‘course’.
    One needs good eyesight and it helps to have the sun at a low angle in order to see them as they rise and line out for their straight ‘beeline’ flight back. In KY at least the bee tree would usually be within a quarter mile or so along that ‘beeline’ flight path.
    Sometimes, because of terrain, you will think you have their ‘course’ but they will make a turn after you can no longer see them. When that happens the bee tree can be anywhere within a complete circle from the source. And that is a LOT more country. The solution is to create a bait station. One kind is honey but there are other kinds such as sugar water. Then a new course can be determined.
    There is a folkway in some places of ‘telling the bees’ when there is a death in the family. I never heard of it when I was growing up though.

  • Reply
    Keith Jones
    June 29, 2016 at 8:28 am

    When I was pastor of a country church down in middle Georgia, right on the “fall line” I had been hunting for an old cemetery on some land in a hollow across a little creek from our church’s property. I found what I thought were old sunken graves, but then was distracted by a strange buzzing sound. It sounded like an electric transformer does just before it goes bad and blows up. Since I was on my neighbor’s property, I thought that possibly there was a transformer near his hog pen that was starting to give trouble. I began following that sound. It got louder and louder. Then I began to notice honeybees flitting past me. Since I’m allergic to their stings, I avoided riling them up, and proceeded on cautiously. Finally I came out into a clearing that was caused by the overshading of a HUGE tulip poplar tree. The old tree was hollow, and its top had broken off. From several openings, bees were coming and going. They were so numerous that they were causing that very loud buzzing sound. I didn’t want to get stung out there by myself in the woods, so I didn’t disturb that nest, but I imagine that old tree was packed with gallons and gallons of honey.

  • Reply
    Carol Isler
    June 29, 2016 at 8:18 am

    My great uncle Henry could do that, course bees. I watched him and Papa rob the gums from a safe distance in the low branches of the apple orchard at the farm on Reedy Fork Rd. in Pelzer. I always wanted to do that, too. I got my first hives in 2012 after retiring from teaching. I have 6 gums in the back yard and my daughter has 2. Pap is right about it being hard work with sweet rewards. I hope I can teach my grandbabies to appreciate the bees and work with them. Your eyes get trained to follow them, you’d be surprised.

  • Reply
    Cullen in Clyde
    June 29, 2016 at 8:14 am

    Lois and I have been talking about getting us some bees. Our neighbor across the way has a hive. And we talked to the local beekeeper group at the Waynesville street festival a couple of week ago. Maybe we will once we’re up here full time. Congrats to your nephew, Mark, on his recent graduation. Sounds like your Dad recognized more than just ‘book-sense’ in him. That’s pretty uncommon these days; to have the kind of intelligence it takes to finish Yale AND to be able to thrive “back up in the holler.” Sounds a lot like your baby girls.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    June 29, 2016 at 7:32 am

    I guess what you do is track them home, steal the queen, and the rest will follow. Sounds like risky business to me. I don’t like bee stings….but I sure do like honey.

  • Leave a Reply