The Appalachian mountains are the oldest in North America. They stretch across the Eastern portion of the United States including the eastern half of Kentucky, my home state. Eastern Kentucky is a land of contradictions. It is a region rich in natural beauty yet it claims some of the highest poverty rates in the nation. The same coal mines that provided high paying jobs to men with little or no formal education also scarred the land and decimated the miners’ homeland. As the coal industry waned, miners were left with few transferable skills and few options for alternative employment. The once vibrant communities of Eastern Kentucky saw shrinking populations, rampant opioid addiction, and little hope for the future.
My great grandparents came from Eastern Kentucky, but like so many they left and traveled north for work outside the mines. My husband’s family came from Harlan in Eastern Kentucky. When my father-in-law was a boy and mining was at its peak, Harlan was a boom town boasting all the conveniences of a mid-sized city. These family connections are the reason Doug and I both have a deep affection for this part of the state even though we don’t live there. For those not from the area, Eastern Kentucky can be a difficult place to understand. Its residents are often depicted as unintelligent and unsophisticated. The nickname of “hillbilly” is sometimes used to describe the people of Appalachia including those from East Tennessee, Eastern Kentucky, and West Virginia. People from these regions are often lampooned in TV shows such as The Beverly Hillbillies and Hee Haw. Yet the people from these areas have a rich and vibrant heritage in all sorts of areas including arts and crafts, music, and heritage skills. Heritage skills is a nice way of saying the skills that one develops when living in a rugged landscape with few external resources to help you survive. If you are looking for a thought provoking read to help you better understand Eastern Kentucky, I suggest Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. Vance does a brilliant job describing his complicated relationship with Eastern Kentucky and with his family that was so dramatically shaped by the region. If you don’t have time for a book but want to better understand Eastern Kentucky, take 6 minutes and 47 seconds to listen to Patti Lovelace sing “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” Lovelace’s intro coupled with the song’s haunting lyrics give you a feel for the experience of coal miners and their families.
Finding solutions to the persistent poverty of Eastern Kentucky and other areas in Appalachia has proven elusive. The dwindling populations and lack of skilled workers in Eastern Kentucky coupled with the rugged terrain make it unappealing for large-scale manufacturing operations. Niche economic opportunities will likely be more successful, and this is where the honey bee enters the story. Groups in Kentucky and West Virginia are working to develop viable beekeeping industries within their Appalachian communities. In West Virginia, the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective, a part of Appalachian Headwaters, is working to train people to become beekeeper entrepreneurs. The Kentucky state apiarist, Tammy Horn Potter who also happens to be from Harlan County, is working hard to develop a robust beekeeping industry in Eastern Kentucky. She worked to develop the group Coal Country Beeworks (CCB). CCB along with several other partners works with coal companies to reclaim land previously impacted by surface mining. After the lands have been graded and have a 4 foot layer of topsoil, native trees with high nectar value are planted. These trees include tulip poplars, black locusts, sourwood, redbud, and other trees native to the region. The variety of trees is important because they supply nectar and pollen in three out of four seasons due to their different flowering times. In some instances, wildflowers are also planted as supplement forage for the bees. This blend of nectars makes for superior honey that can command a premium price. Honey bees don’t mind the sloped land of Appalachia that makes conventional agricultural crops difficult or impossible to grow.
Eastern Kentucky offers some significant advantages to beekeepers. The mountainous terrain is not conducive to large-scale farming of field crops, so pesticide use in the region is less than in other parts of the country. Eastern Kentucky beekeepers are in a unique position to provide honey that is free of residual pesticides, and this attribute increases the value of the honey. Another benefit is that most people in the region grew up with grandparents or other family members who kept bees. Residents already have a positive view towards beekeeping and are receptive to the efforts of the groups working to promote it. Large capital investments are not needed to begin beekeeping, and beekeepers don’t need to own or rent large tracts of land. The bee hives simply need to be close enough to an area that has ample nectar sources.
Tammy Horn Potter stresses that there are multiple revenue sources for beekeepers including sale of honey, pollination services, breeding queen bees, sales of bees, and sale of beeswax for use in cosmetics. The US imports much of its honey. I wrote previously about the huge problem of adulterated foreign honey. US consumers are beginning to realize the value of buying domestically produced honey and wax, and this presents an opportunity for Appalachian beekeepers. Beekeeping provides residents of these communities with greater self-sufficiency. Not everyone will become a full-time beekeeper, but even a few hives could provide honey for the family and some supplemental income. The bees will pollinate the newly planted trees helping to further the reforestation efforts.
More time is needed to see the impact that the honey bee brings to Eastern Kentucky and other areas of Appalachia, but efforts are off to a good start. Honey bees in Eastern Kentucky were nearly wiped out in the 1980s due to varroa mites and tracheal mites. When the mines began to close, the communities of Eastern Kentucky were nearly wiped out as well. Perhaps these communities and the honey bees can help each other stage a wonderful comeback that benefits the people and the land.
- Orion Magazine, “Restoring Appalachia” by McKay Jenkins.
- Think Progress, “Former Appalachian coal miners are finding new work in unexpected places” by Marlene Cimons. November 10, 2017.
- Creating a Honey Corridor: Challenges of Coal Country Beeworks.
- Bee Culture, “Tammy Horn Potter” by Barbara Gillette. November 22, 2016.
- The Lane Report, “Bee-ginning a new Appalachian industry” by Kristi L. Branham. May 6, 2014.