Out of Work Coal Miners are Being Trained as Beekeepers

A new honey industry is beginning to flourish in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia


(Jaroslav Moravcik / Shutterstock.com)

In a region known more for coal mining than entrepreneurship, one organization is training former coal miners to be beekeepers.

The Appalachian Beekeeping Collective is offering the training to displaced coal miners and other low-income residents throughout the state to give them new job opportunities and a way to make some supplemental income.

New money-making opportunities are urgently needed in the region because coal mining jobs are disappearing. There was a decline in mining jobs from 132,000 in 1990 to 53,000 in 2018, and they are not coming back. This left the region's economy in a distressed shape. West Virginia has only 53.9 percent of its residents employed, that’s the lowest labor-force participation rate in the country.

Some residents like James Scyphers were able to find employment in construction after being a coal miner for almost 20 years – as was his father and grandfather before him – according to National Public Radio News, but it was at a substantial pay cut. "These were the best jobs in the area; we depended on 'em," he told NPR.

Scyphers had to take odd jobs to supplement his income. One of them included building the hives and tending bees for the Appalachian Beekeeping collective. "I wish this group had been here 30 years ago," he told NPR. "Our region needs it."

"It wasn't just the miners that lost their livelihoods when mining jobs disappeared; other industries started to wilt, too, and entire communities were affected," Cindy Bee, a master beekeeper with Appalachian Headwaters told the NPR. "We're doing something that can boost the town up."

Appalachian Headwaters was formed in 2016 to invest a $7.5 million settlement from a lawsuit against coal mine operator Alpha Natural Resources for violations of the Clean Water Act. The organization uses the money to fund environmental restoration projects and to develop sustainable development opportunities in the region including the Beekeeping Collective.  

The beekeeping program began initially as a way to ensure there were enough pollinators to help the mined land restoration projects, but it evolved into a workforce development program when the organization realized the economic opportunities offered by keeping bees.

The collective trains new beekeepers to maintain honey bees as a business. The program provides the materials and the support that is necessary to start up, and they keep the costs down through collective processing and marketing. The collective only uses natural beekeeping techniques that are free from all pesticides and antibiotics.

The organization has already trained 35 beekeepers, and there are 50 more people signed up to begin training. After completing the training, the graduates can receive equipment and bees at a reduced cost and they have access to mentoring. The collective beekeepers have as few as two and as many as 20 hives.

According to the collective, a strong beehive can produce between 60 and 100 lbs of honey per season. In 2018, the retail price of honey was $7.32 per pound, so multiple hives can give good supplemental income. Besides selling honey, there are opportunities to produce candles and other beeswax products.

Last year was the first season in which beekeepers maintained their hives. Since beekeepers have to wait a full year to collect honey, the first honey harvest will occur this spring, according to the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective. The collective will collect the honey, bottle it, sell it and pay the beekeepers the going market rate for their product.  

The collective is also developing a queen bee breeding program using hardy stock that has adapted to live in Appalachia. Every generation of bees will be better adapted than the ones before it.      

While the training is open to all residents, Scyphers believe that former coal miners will benefit the most. "The older folks want to get back to work, but mining is never going to be like it was in the '60s and '70s, and there is nothing to fall back on, no other big industries here, so all of these folks need retraining," he told NPR. "Beekeeping is hands-on work, like mining, and requires on-the-job training. You need a good work ethic for both.

"Most of the coal miners are hardworking people," he added. "With what Appalachian Beekeeping Collective is doing, teaching us how to make a profit from beekeeping, I think we can all make a good go of it and get back to work."

It will take a cooperative spirit to restore the mine-scarred landscape and bring new economic opportunities to this impoverished region, but nonprofits like Appalachian Headwaters is on the right track. Someday, West Virginia will be known for its organic honey and other agricultural products instead of coal mining.

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