Nature’s Gift of Bees: Part II

December 6, 2012

In this second of a three-part series on how honeybees have aided people and improved the quality of their lives, I’ll focus on efforts in Kentucky to reclaim surface mining land and revitalize the Appalachian economy and the role honeybees play in this promising undertaking. In part one of the series (11/29/12), I discussed the contributions honeybees made in helping pilgrims settle in America. And in my third post (12/19/12), I’d like to highlight the efforts Heifer International is making toward helping families in developing countries become self-sustaining by supplying them with bees and the necessary equipment and training to take care of them. These bees can help to almost double the yield of fruit and vegetable crop production as well as provide a source of family income through the sale of honey, comb and beeswax.

I first became aware of the reclamation project in Kentucky when I went to hear historian and beekeeper, Dr. Tammy Horn speak at the Montgomery County Beekeeper’s Association (Maryland) monthly meeting. I had enjoyed reading her fascinating book, Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation (University of Kentucky Press 2005), and looked forward to hearing about her new initiatives. One that stuck in my mind is her work leading an innovative pilot project—the Coal Country Beeworks—that focuses on the relationship between coalmine reclamation sites and honeybees. In collaboration with coal companies and with funding from the private sector, she is helping to bring about the repopulation of surface mine sites with pollinator forage and habitat.  According to a study by one of her colleagues, Dr. Steve Bullard at the University of Kentucky, the state loses 130 acres of forest every day. By planting trees that sustain honeybees and other pollinators, this devastation can be partially reversed.

One of her most critical roles in this initiative is to bring more creativity to mine reclamation by reforesting areas with bee-friendly trees and plants. Furthermore, these trees and plants need to reflect the native Appalachian landscape and provide three-seasons (i.e., spring, summer and fall) of bloom. Another important contribution she is making will be to encourage a beekeeping infrastructure among people who live around these reclaimed sites. The idea is that a robust economy in these mining towns will depend more on landscape diversity than on mega single industries such as coal mining.

I was impressed with Dr. Horn’s vision to create a “honey corridor” in eastern Kentucky and nearby West Virginia where there are more than 33,000 surface-mined acres. Her plan is to train local residents in the art of beekeeping, which was once a common pursuit of their forebears. These individuals could in turn teach others and so on until an entire bee industry is established. Beekeepers from the region could support themselves by selling honey and beeswax on a commercial scale. She also envisions that this region could become known for its honeybee pollination and queen production services, both of which are in high demand. From a scientific perspective, she is also interested in breeding an Appalachian strain of honeybees that would be resistant to the diseases and pests that are decimating many of our nation’s honeybee colonies.

We at Bee America support Dr. Horn’s and the Coal Country Beeworks efforts to collaborate with coal companies to plant pollinator-friendly trees and plants on reclaimed mine sites and to educate and train local residents about beekeeping in order to establish a honeybee industry in Appalachia. Bee America, as part of its annual holiday giving campaign for 2012, has made a donation to Eastern Kentucky University in support of Coal Country Beeworks.


About Coal Country Beeworks:

Since its origin at the Eastern KY Environmental Research Institute in 2008, Coal Country Beeworks has focused on creating more pollinator habitat in Appalachian Kentucky by collaborating with state and federal agencies, other universities, supporting graduate and undergraduate research, working with local communities to address their ecosystem concerns, and sharing research with the public.

Coal Country Beeworks was initiated with the generous gift of thirty hives and financial support from beekeepers Ed and Elaine Holcombe of Tennessee. Mr. Holcombe has been actively involved in queen production for more than thirty years, and has worked with the USDA Baton Rouge Honey Bee Lab in order to develop a line of mite resistant queen bees. Other grant partners include the Steele-Reese Foundation, Kentucky Foundation for Women, EKU-Regional Stewardship Funds, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Foundation for the Preservation of Honey Bees, among other private individual gifts.