Raising Bees by the Sea

Beekeepers come from all walks of life. They are coaches, teachers, artists. It doesn’t really matter what their profession is – the bees call to them, drawing them into their sweet world in the same inexplicable ways.

For Haley Hyatt Bartolotta, it was love at first sight.

“I just fell in love with the whole idea,” she says of seeing a hive up close back in 2012. Five years later, she has three hives: one at her home right over the bridge in Currituck, one in Duck, and another in Southern Shores.

“I was just amazed at the roles each bee has and what a close society exists in that little box. And the end result is this wonderful stuff that we all love.”

Denise Deacon shares a similar story as she walks around the perimeter of the two hives outside her Kitty Hawk home. She picks up a few honey bees that are lying on the ground and gently places them in a small plastic container. To the novice, these winged insects look dead. But Deacon knows better. 

She’ll warm them either in her hands or bring the bees inside, thaw them out near a warm lamp, and then release them back to the hive. Deacon knows that every member of the hive matters, and she is the perfect person to explain what makes a community of bees tick.

“There really is a silent minority that exists here on the Outer Banks that is trying to make everyone’s lives better by keeping bees,” says Deacon of the growing number of beekeepers on the Outer Banks. Deacon, who lives on the edge of the Kitty Hawk Woods Preserve, heads up the ever-expanding Outer Banks Beekeepers Guild, which now has as many as 30 beekeepers and more than 130 members on its mailing list. 

Denise Deacon’s hives outside her Kitty Hawk home. Photo Michelle Wagner.

While Deacon can’t quite pin down what it was that made her first gravitate toward apiary causes five years ago, she does remember the moment it became clear that she’d become a keeper of bees.

“I just all of the sudden knew it was something I had to do,” she says, and recalls standing in her yard envisioning exactly where a hive would go. And she has a few memories that could explain what years later would grow into a fascination and affection for these pollinators. 

One is of her father, who had a beehive when Deacon was a child. “It was pretty unusual back then in the 70s to have beehives in your backyard,” says Deacon, adding that she was interested in the hives but they didn’t last. Teenagers knocked them down a few months after he got them. 

And seven or eight years ago, it dawned on her that the reason her squash, tomato and melon plants weren’t producing any fruit was likely because they weren’t being pollinated.  

Not long after, Deacon began looking for beekeepers in the area, connecting with two of only a few who were in the area at the time. One was Bartolotta and together they reached out to the Beekeepers of the Albemarle to enroll in a class. Soon afterward, she ordered two nucleus hives that she picked up in early 2012. Deacon lost both hives that first year. 

Denise Deacon inspects the capped honey from one of her hives. Photo Michelle Wagner.

“It was traumatic to lose them,” says Deacon, who now moves around the hives with complete ease, letting the honey bees land on her and soaking in the mesmerizing movements and sounds of the bees at work. 

“It’s a very scary thing to go into the hive during that first year. You have to be very gentle and just have to get it through your head that you are going to get stung at some point.”

Over the years, Deacon’s learned a lot about how to interact with the bees. “You have to be very mindful of what you are doing with your body in relation to their space. It’s their area, their hive, and their nest. You should be consciously aware of why you need to go in and bother them.”

Deacon continued to learn from the bees alongside her fellow beekeepers that first year, and became increasingly attracted to the idea of natural beekeeping. She plans to add two hives to her apiary this spring and prefers the natural comb that bees build to their preferred size.

And as she continued to delve into the beekeeping world, a community of likeminded community members was also emerging, and in 2014, the Outer Banks Beekeepers Guild was born. 

Growing Bees

What began just three years ago as a handful of local beekeepers like Deacon and Bartolotta has now grown into a guild whose mission is to encourage better methods among beekeepers; promote cooperation and sharing; and study and research the apiarian art. In the short time since its inception, the Guild has definitely become “all the buzz” in the local apiarian world.

“We have a wonderful community of beekeepers here,” says Deacon. She is quick to mention supporting members such as the Guild’s vice president, Susan Rollason, treasurer Drew Owen, program manager Julie Moye and co-secretaries Deb Lawson and Dalton Hyde, all of whom she said have been instrumental in the Guild’s success.

The group holds monthly meetings, hosts speakers and conducts removals of honey bee swarms. It also held its first local honey contest last December. This spring, the group hosted Michael Bush, a well-known speaker on the treatment-free methods of beekeeping. 

Deacon and other Guild members also speak at schools and organizations, sharing with the local community the world of beekeeping and its benefits, including the honey it produces.

“Outer Banks honey is really unique because we don’t have the influence of agricultural chemicals here,” says Deacon as she starts the harvest process, first crushing the comb that bursts with sweet honey. Everything is then poured into a strainer set atop a clean receptacle, covered, and left to sit for a day or two. After the bubbles have risen, the honey is put into clean jars.

The benefits of raw harvested honey are endless, with all the naturally occurring pollen, vitamins, minerals and amino acids preserved during the harvest. Honey properties have many health benefits, serving as an antiseptic, antioxidant, antibacterial, antibiotic, anti-inflammatory. Eating local honey also minimizes seasonal allergies. 

Deacon extracts honey using the crush and strain method. The wax, once licked clean by the bees, can be melted and used for other purposes. Photos by Michelle Wagner.


Honey from spring flowers can be clear and light tasting while a fall harvest can produce dark and molasses-like honey. According to the Guild’s webpage, bees visit more than two million flowers and fly 55,000 miles (that’s more than twice around the equator) to make one pound of honey, and each female produces only one-twelfth of a teaspoon in her lifetime. As for local honey, the demand far exceeds the supply, Deacon said. 

But as much as Deacon loves the end product – the sweet honey that drips from the crushed cone – it’s the bees that she finds so endearing. “It’s just mesmerizing to watch them coming and going and seeing the way they work together. It’s ‘all for one’ with them. A hive really is a super-organism.”

For more information on the Outer Banks Beekeepers Guild, sources of local honey, or swarm removal, visit outerbanksbeekeepers.com.

Help the Native Pollinators – Plant Local

Experts agree that honey bees have been in decline since 2006, and a 2013 study by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies estimates annual hive loss among beekeepers to be 30 percent or higher. 

The destruction of habitat, the increasing use of pesticides, parasites and global temperatures, are all to blame for not only the honey bees’ plight, but all native pollinators. There are some things people can do to help and one is to plant flowers, trees and shrubs in your yard and garden that are bee-friendly. 

A honey bee gathers pollen in her corbicula, her pollen basket. Photo Denise Deacon.

Native bees really need a variety of flowering plants, Deacon says. She recommends planting native whenever possible and choosing high nectar and pollen source trees and shrubs in addition to perennial plants and flowers. A few examples include red maple, tulip poplar, holly, blackberry, clover, goldenrod, aster, locust, black and tupelo gum.

Flowering herbs like mint, basil, oregano, lavender and rosemary planted in containers and left to flower are also a favorite among bees. Other good container plants are catnip, catmint, Russian Sage, Pineapple Sage, thyme and chives.

Leaving dead wood piles as well as dry, bare batches of earth in your garden is also helpful for pollinators. 

“And it’s really important to check that what you buy is not already treated with pesticides,” Deacon points out, adding that it’s good to look for the United States Department of Agriculture organic stamp when picking out plants at the store. 

And as far as those pesky flowering dandelions, it’s best to leave them in the ground. The bees with thank you. ♦


Michelle Wagner is the editor at Three Dog Ink and has been living and writing on the Outer Banks for more than 15 years. Contact Michelle

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