A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Our State Animals: Check out the full series. [caption id="attachment_160558" align="alignright" width="300"] Winship’s safe space is her garden, surrounded by sunchokes. Her necklace, a cherished gift from a parent of

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Our State Animals: Check out the full series. [caption id="attachment_160558" align="alignright" width="300"] Winship’s safe space is her garden, surrounded by sunchokes. Her necklace, a cherished gift from a parent of

Lessons from the Hive

Our State Animals: Check out the full series.

Winship’s safe space is her garden, surrounded by sunchokes. Her necklace, a cherished gift from a parent of one of her volunteers, includes a piece of real honeycomb and a real bee, forged and fashioned into a pendant. photograph by Art by Court Winter

Walking the grounds of her small homesteading farm in Winston-Salem, Samantha Foxx Winship knew that something was amiss. It was like any other fall morning. Sunlight streamed through the crisping leaves, chickens chattered as she passed them, and Scotch bonnet peppers bobbed bright in both warning and welcome. The animals were fine, the crops looked good, and Winship had made it through her first summer of beekeeping. With cooler weather coming in, she felt secure enough to relax a little.

Summer is a crucial time for bees. It’s when they busily store up honey for the winter. Winship had fallen in love with her new operation, investing hundreds in beekeeping classes and equipment to build up her colony and deliberately harvesting very little to ensure that the hive had a surplus of food.

The bees! Struck by a sudden chill, she sprinted to her hives, already fearing from a hundred yards away what she would find. “It’s an energy thing,” Winship says of the feeling she had. “I didn’t even go inside to put on my bee suit. I just put my ear to it and then opened the corner of a box. They were all gone.”

Among Winship’s products are a homemade honey soap bar and a Scotch bonnet mead made by Wilkesboro-based Stardust Cellars using pepper-infused honey from her farm. photograph by Art by Court Winter

It’s called absconding, and it’s one of the great mysteries of the beekeeping world. For whatever reasons, the conditions inside a hive become too stressful for the bees, and all or most of the colony suddenly move with their queen. With no honey, no food, and no pollen, any remaining bees have no chance of surviving the dropping temperatures.

Winship lost some 50,000 bees that first year, and it broke her heart. “I just went in the house and cried. It was a hard lesson,” she says. “Losing a hive is hard because you get attached to it.”

Five years later, Winship has more than recovered. She’s built a reputation as the queen bee of North Carolina honey and established Mother’s Finest Urban Farms as a premier educational and community resource for arts and sustainable agriculture. Her honey, produce, tonics, and Scotch bonnet-infused mead are sold across the Southeast.

Since 1973, the honeybee has been the official insect of North Carolina. Beyond pollinating crops in our heavily agricultural state, the bees’ honey and wax are used in everything from medicine to makeup. Winship, who has a background in early childhood education, well knows the vital role that bees play in ecology. She sees Mother’s Finest as more than a means of production — it’s a way to ensure that children, especially Black children, reconnect with their role as caregivers of the Earth, and that they know about our state’s official insect.

Winship grew up in Goldsboro, two hours from her mother’s family in Beaufort. Her great-uncle owned a farm in nearby Eureka. Summertime visits with him consisted of playing outside in the dirt and watching out for the bees that were crucial to the plants. “It was my happy place,” she says. But that changed when the death of her older brother upended the family. Gripped with sorrow, 13-year-old Samantha went to Chicago to live with another uncle, who nurtured her entrepreneurial spirit.

She embarked on a successful career in makeup and hair artistry, but inside, she never quite recovered from the loss of her sibling. “[My brother] was always positive and very protective, and it was a hard place to dig myself out of,” she says. “Honestly, getting back into nature helped me heal from grief.”

Winship’s mission is to teach children the value of agricultural pursuits. Here, she shows her son, Kingston, and Kymani Cremedy how a smoker works to calm the bees. photograph by Art by Court Winter

After relocating back home from the Midwest with her oldest son in tow, Winship eventually decided to try beekeeping. It felt like a rebirth. She was the only Black person in her first beekeeping class, which was populated by older white men, some in Confederate flag T-shirts. “At first I was going to leave because I felt uncomfortable,” she says. “But I just got the strength from somewhere, and I started to realize that this place needed me here. I’m glad I was bold enough to stay.”

Now, she teaches classes of her own, and her presence in the state’s bee industry has been welcomed. One of Winship’s students told her that seeing another Black woman in the field gave her the confidence to pursue the discipline herself. And when the National Honey Board shot a video with Winship, the crew said that she was one of the few women they’d featured. “They were tired of the norm,” Winship says. The video, Celebrating Beekeeping: Changing the Face of Beekeeping, has since racked up more than 2 million views on YouTube.

Winship’s ultimate goal is to preserve Black and Indigenous wisdom by passing it on to younger people — by encouraging more children of color to engage not just in beekeeping but also in other agricultural pursuits. Prior to the pandemic, she held workshops on animal husbandry and beekeeping at schools across the Triad. Now, as vaccine efficacy has made in-person learning safer again, she’s expanded her educational offerings at Mother’s Finest. “I’m a firm believer that nature can be one of the best teachers,” says Winship, who waxes poetic about the sacred geometry of honeycomb hexagons.

She’s also passionate about building educational safe spaces, especially for kids of color who may have been discouraged by certain teachers. And her students don’t all have to become farmers or beekeepers. “They might cure plant diseases, test soil vitality, work on climate change,” she says. “We need to have them engaged with conversations like that.”

The fruits of those bees’ labor can be found in jars of Winship’s Jamaican Scotch bonnet-infused honey. photograph by Art by Court Winter

Still, the old chestnut about a spoonful of honey rings true. Instead of focusing on systemic failures, Winship hones in on solutions — and her own cool factor — to keep students interested and learning. One way is through fashion: She often wears crowns and is fond of bee-themed jewelry. “I’m imprinting in their minds that this” — meaning herself — “is a beautiful Black woman who’s intelligent and proud and ambitious and fearless. I’m not just representing myself but also my family and my ancestors.”

She aims to help break generational curses of impoverishment, malnutrition, and preventable diseases like high blood pressure and the cancers that took her grandmother and aunt. “I want to see healthy families, a healthy community, and a healthy society,” she says. “And I feel like those conversations are started in households and they become community conversations about wellness, protecting our kids, educating our kids.”

Samantha Foxx Winship uses a smoker to calm her colony of bees. photograph by Art by Court Winter

Another goal is to build a year-round curriculum that exposes young minds to lifelong skills and provides them with something that she didn’t have: a role model in beekeeping and agriculture who looks like they do. If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. Fittingly, Winship takes inspiration from North Carolina’s favorite insect.

Wearing a tie-dye apron and honeycomb earrings, she approaches her hives gingerly. Although they know her scent, she’s mindful not to intersect the bees’ flight paths. It’s a dance that has been practiced and perfected over the past five years.

“Bees have taught me so much,” she says. “Their life cycles are only 22 days, so they have to accomplish everything they can in that window.” She smiles. “And look how much impact they have!”

For more information on Samantha Foxx Winship’s products and classes, visit mothersfinesturbanfarms.com or email mothersfinestfarms@gmail.com.

This story was published on Oct 24, 2022

Emiene Wright

Wright is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Charlotte Observer, Creative Loafing, Q City Metro and CLTure.