Holly Trees and Honey Bees Help Our Past Remain Present
Whether living on one of the barrier islands, a little further inland on one of the waterways or just visiting, you may have a hard time imagining what the rural Charleston area was like 300, 100 or even 50 years ago. The fact is, excepting downtown Charleston, much of the area grew thick with American holly, grand oaks and maritime pines. It was a majestic coastal forest. Plants native to maritime forests are typically salt-tolerant and evergreen.
Much of the Charleston area’s coastal forests have been timbered extensively beginning in the 18th century with the boom in the shipbuilding industry (the ships were made from oak). After steel replaced wood for shipbuilding, the pine trees of the coastal forest were timbered for paper and other products. The maritime forest that remains in the South Carolina Lowcountry is said to be secondary growth from seedlings with a few larger, older trees interspersed.
But even in our residential neighborhoods amidst the paved streets and comfy homes, we have plenty of reminders of the mighty forest that was once here. Throughout the Charleston area, pines still tower over homes, oak trees spread shade and hollies line our yards.
And although they are not indigenous to North America, another reminder of what was once here are the honey bees (Apis mellifera). Evidence of human interaction with honey bees dates back to prehistoric times, and European colonists brought domestic honey bees to North America early in the 17th century.
With its mild winters and an abundance of fragrant flowering holly trees, South Carolina proved an excellent habitat for the honey bees. Some bees left their human-kept colonies to live in the lush coastal forest of South Carolina as feral bees. Scientists speculate that feral bee populations provided enough genetic diversity so that disease among the domestic colonies was minimized. The flourishing bee population here also helped early colonists. Because the bees pollinated the crops, more bees meant more pollination and better agricultural yields.
Wild honey bee colonies live in caverns such as hollow trees. The American hollies in the Charleston area bloom in late February and early March. Their fragrant flowers provide some of the first nectar of the season for the bees. Step outside your door late in February and your holly trees are likely to be abuzz with hungry bees and other nectar feeders.
While feral bee populations are thought to have declined by 90 percent over the last 50 years, they are making a comeback. We even have some colonies buzzing around our neighborhoods here in the Lowcountry.
If you notice multiple bees flying in and out of a tree or another location, be very careful of that area. While small colonies of feral honey bees are docile, they become more aggressive as the colony grows and will attack if they feel threatened. Make sure not to disturb the hive in any way — lawnmowers and hedge trimmers can trigger the bees’ defenses. An especially large hive can be removed by wildlife officials, but honey bees are protected in South Carolina and cannot be destroyed.
What are your experiences with bees in South Carolina? Please share your stories by commenting below.