Blooms & Bees: An Elegant, Pollinator-Friendly Garden

In his retirement, Roger Montague has become a beekeeper. Today he has boxes for honeybees and native bees tucked into his beautiful, diverse landscape.
by Helen Yoest | photography by Juli Leonard

Nestled in Cary’s charming Picardy Pointe neighborhood, there stands a Federal Colonial-
style home encircled by exquisitely manicured grounds. The house has been Roger and Pettis Montague’s home for over three decades. It’s also a haven for birds, bees and butterflies.

Roger retired in 2014 from a distinguished 50-year career working with the USDA and Bayer Crop Science — but he didn’t leave his passion for science behind. Instead, he harnessed his expertise, using his free time to delve into the world of bees and blossoms. “I wanted to honor my father, whom I remember keeping bees 70-plus years ago,” he says. “I also wanted to involve myself in something after retirement that kept my mind active and required physical exercise outdoors.”

Montague tends to his honeybee boxes. Right: A rare “Ice and Fire” Double Picotee Hellebore has petals edged in color.

Roger studied and researched beekeeping for a year, attending a beekeeping course at the Chatham County Extension Service Center as well as reading innumerable articles and books on the subject. “Successful beekeeping requires continual study. It is a complicated endeavor,” says Roger, who also visited several beekeepers and watched what they were doing. But perhaps most importantly, he found a beekeeping mentor, Craig Dupree of Dupree’s Bees and Woodworking: “I have lunch with him on a regular basis — he’s become a friend as well as a mentor.” Before Roger installed his first hive, he reached out to neighbors and the neighborhood HOA. Fortunately, “they were very supportive and excited about it,” Roger says.  

Roger found kits to make his honeybee boxes through Ozark Cedar Hives in Galena, Missouri. “I wanted the hives to be made from red cedar because it was my father’s favorite tree,” he says. He assembled the bee boxes himself, starting with one hive, and was up to three hives after three years. At one time, Roger managed six hives.

The dark-purple leaves of a “Ruby Falls” Eastern Redbud.

“To successfully keep honeybees, one has to think strategically. It requires continual learning to be good at it, thinking months ahead to make sound tactical decisions,” Roger says. Among them: figuring out how to deal with the Varroa mite, a parasite that feeds on honeybees; deciding when to split a colony in the spring to keep the bees from swarming; and choosing how to feed honeybees during the summer to keep the colony healthy.

In addition to attracting honeybees, Roger has created homes on his property for native bees, which are solitary rather than hive nesters. The native bee boxes resemble small bird houses filled with bamboo tubes and offer nesting sites for species like wild mason and leafcutter bees.

By 2016, Roger had passionately embraced the dual roles of apiarist and pollinator gardener. On just a quarter acre, Roger has cultivated an array of flower species that serve as beacons to pollinators — including blanket flower, milkweed, salvia, spiderwort and even blueberries. Roger’s favorite pollinator plant is the hoary mountain mint.

“It’s not a showy plant, but it attracts pollinators beyond belief,” he says. Roger continues to grow his pollinator garden, adding more than 300 individual perennials as recently as this spring. Roger advocates for plant diversity, citing the staggering quantity of blooms that bees must visit to produce honey: “For honeybees to make a pound of honey, they have to visit 2,000,000 flowers.” It can take 12 bees their entire lifetime to make just one teaspoon of honey.

With most of his pollinator plants in sunny areas, the property also has walking paths in the shade for cool summer comfort with lush ferns, coral bells, hellebores, hydrangeas and berry-producing native viburnums to feed the birds.

 A native bee box for mason and leafcutter bees and the “Cajun Fire” Coral Bell has mottled leaves and tiny white blooms later in the spring

A soothing feature on the property is a pond filled with water lilies and water softly flowing over a stone ledge. Roger’s son, Preston Montague, a landscape architect and botanical illustrator, serves as Roger’s advisor and collaborator in the pond and the gardens. “I take inspiration from him,” Roger says. The feeling is mutual. “Dad’s garden is an expression of his love for the rhythms of nature and concern for the well-being of even the tiniest of species,” says Preston. “He has slowly expanded the ecosystem service potential of the property, shifting from a conventional suburban landscape to a wilder, habitat-focused garden.”

Ten years into his beekeeping adventure, Roger now mentors new beekeepers and presents educational programs to schools, garden clubs and retirement communities. He also shows off his yard during garden tours (or, as he puts it, to “anyone who wants to listen”). Roger harvests about 75 pounds of honey each year. “I give a lot of the honey away and eat some of it — I do not sell it. Sometimes I take it to presentations and let the organization give it to someone in the audience,” Roger says.

Roger named his bee garden after his two grandchildren, Halle and Emily, who were 6 and 4, respectively, when he started it. “I hope they will grow up with fond memories of beekeeping with their grandfather,” Roger says, “just as I did with my father so long ago.”  

Montague grows a variety of blueberries, include Climax, Premiere and Powder Blue (left). The “May Night” Salvia is a bee magnet.

This article originally appeared in the May 2024 issue of WALTER magazine.