Honeybees Bring Hope to Rural Appalachia
by Cappy Tosetti Amazingly, something so small can make such a big difference in the lives of men and women looking for new skills and job opportunities. Thanks to the industrious honeybee, there’s hope on the horizon for many unemployed individuals in rural Appalachia, West Virginia.
In recent years, the region has lost many industry jobs such as coal mining, oil, and gas extraction, and manufacturing, resulting in a displaced population looking for new means of income and a way to provide for one’s family. It’s been a disheartening situation, causing many financial and emotional problems that chip away at a person’s confidence and sense of pride.
Since 2017, the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective in Lewisburg, West Virginia, has addressed this dire situation with great determination. The nonprofit organization trains and supports individuals interested in becoming partner beekeepers and provides bees, hive boxes, and equipment at no cost. They also help with honey production, assisting with extraction, bottling, labeling to FDA standards, and marketing.
The curriculum includes topics on forest ecosystems, honeybee evolution, biology, and bee behavior, the history of beekeeping, principles of pollination, understanding hives and honeycombs, pests and diseases, worldwide threats to pollinators, necessary equipment and gear, and the fundamentals for operating a successful beekeeping business, including management and marketing endeavors. Since its inception, ABC has taught and continues to mentor over 100 enthusiastic entrepreneurs in business for themselves. Others in the region are eager to learn as more classes fill the calendar.
The Appalachian Beekeeping Collective is a project of Appalachian Headwaters, a nonprofit organization focused on ecological restoration and environmental education, with programs that promote a healthy environment and a strong economy in Appalachia.
One of their primary programs is restoring native forests on former mountaintop-removal coal mining sites in the area. Presently, the organization is establishing native forests and restoring streams on two former mines totaling over 5,000 acres. They also have an extensive native plant program that propagates and grows seedlings for reforestation projects.
The organization is expanding its environmental education programs in public schools and Camp Waldo, an environmentally focused summer camp for children in grades four through 10. Its goal is to encourage youngsters to respect, conserve, and protect the environment with various outdoor programs and activities.
In 2020, Headwaters launched the Appalachian Pollinator Center, an environmental education and research program focused on the ecology of honeybees and habitats, along with a strong emphasis on protecting native pollinators and plants in the region.
West Virginia’s Appalachia has a rich history of beekeeping with an abundance of hardwood forests and wildflower meadows providing high-quality forage. Pollen and nectar-rich blossoms from sourwood, basswood (linden), tulip poplar, and black locust trees are a favorite of honeybees, producing remarkable and distinctive honey unique to the area. Generations of families in the area have had a close connection with the land. Preserving that heritage and helping individuals prosper is paramount.
“The Appalachian Beekeeping Collective is an amazing program that literally changes lives,” explains Mark Lilly, Head Beekeeper for the organization. “It’s more than providing a new career path for individuals; it’s gives people a glimmer of hope and a new direction that somewhere was lost before. It’s a wonderful thing to watch as folks discover they can achieve new skills that will change and brighten their future.”
Mark’s life also changed because of the organization. Beekeeping has been a favorite hobby for many years since first learning about apiculture from his grandfather. His interest grew as an adult, taking classes and getting involved with various organizations. Mark is an EAS Master Beekeeper (Eastern Apiculture Society), West Virginia Master Beekeeper, secretary for the West Virginia Beekeepers Association, and president of the Raleigh County Beekeepers Cooperative Association.
When Mark retired from over 30 years in the insurance industry, he was delighted to learn about the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective, especially hearing there was a position open for head beekeeper. He never dreamed something so interesting would come along at this time in life, but doors have a way of opening up new horizons.
Each day is different for Mark. He says he’s a jack-of-all-trades, which brings great variety to the job. His primary responsibility is teaching — being an instructor and mentor, helping residents learn every aspect of beekeeping in the classroom and out in the field.
“There’s something special when things begin to click,” Mark explains. “That moment when an individual lights up with enthusiasm, realizing they have newfound skills and an opportunity to use what they’ve learned with new purpose and focus. It’s so rewarding watching a person’s self-confidence build as they go through the program and begin a new career in beekeeping.”
Between teaching assignments, Mark travels the region giving educational presentations on beekeeping and the organization. It’s something he enjoys thoroughly, whether it’s for a large gathering in a community center or stopping by to meet with folks on the front porch. Sharing an interest in beekeeping and the environment comes from the heart.
Mark also checks on hives and keeps busy with repairs and replenishing equipment. He never knew retirement could be so exciting. There’s something to be said about following one’s bliss. Mark Lilly can truthfully say it’s the bee’s knees!
Speaking of honey, there’s exciting news buzzing about at the office at Appalachian Beekeeping Collective. Kate Asquith, Director of Programs and Outreach at Appalachian Headwaters, just returned from a special ceremony: The Made in the South Awards presented by Garden & Gun Magazine, the annual event that honors the region’s talented artisans, creative makers, small business owners, and other entrepreneurs. There are six categories: Food, Drink, Home, Style, Outdoors, and Crafts.
This year’s food winner is Appalachian Beekeeping Collective’s Black Locust Honey, awarded by the event’s 2021 food judge, four-time James Beard winner,
Andrew Zimmern — chef, author, restaurateur, food critic, and radio and television host. All entries by ABC were heralded with rave reviews, including the delicate sourwood, buttery basswood, robust red Tulip Poplar, and the flagship, Appalachian Honey, made from a wide variety of forest wildflowers. But the Black Locust took the blue ribbon. Zimmern’s notes included comments about the distinctive forest-based honey with its touch of vanilla and hint of mint, declaring it’s that extra-special kind of honey one would choose when slathering a spoonful on a freshly baked biscuit!
For more information on the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective, natural honey products, and profiles on individual partner beekeepers:
Originally published in the February/March 2022 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.