Tucked inside an old gymnasium, hundreds of wooden boxes are stacked along a far wall. The space, formerly home base for a summer camp, is now host to labs and classrooms filled with bright, freshly painted blue boxes.
But children won’t be playing here this summer. Instead, among the boxes and stainless steel vats, displaced coal miners and low-income West Virginians will learn a new trade — beekeeping. It’s part of a program run by the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective, a program for low-income West Virginians to make supplemental income through beekeeping.
While beekeeping may seem like an odd choice for former coal miners, it’s a viable and increasingly popular way for people in rural areas to make money. In West Virginia, where poverty is high and jobs are scarce, a large part of the population is struggling to make ends meet.
Coal mining once bolstered the region, but between 2005 and 2015, employment in the coal industry decreased by about 27 percent, according to research by West Virginia University. Across the nation, states like Kentucky, Wyoming and Pennsylvania have to find jobs to fill the employment gap left by the coal industry.
Enter the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective. The collective operates across 17 counties in southern West Virginia and offers classes in subjects like, Is Beekeeping Right for Me?, bee basics and advanced beekeeping. It’s a branch of the Appalachian Headwaters, a nonprofit formed to develop sustainable economic opportunities across the region.
Interested beekeepers can take Beekeeping 101, which is a five-week course where they learn the basics of beekeeping, bee biology and solutions to common problems. Once the new beekeeper has completed this course, he or she can become a partner in the collective. The partnership offers training, mentorship, equipment and bees for free or at a reduced cost.
But the startup cost to becoming a beekeeper can be a barrier of entry.
This was the case for Jason Young, a resident of White Oak, West Virginia.
Young originally started beekeeping as a hobby but quickly realized it could turn into a small business. “We had decided that we wanted to move forward,” he says. “But it was really the money that was holding us back.”
When Young discovered the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective offered training and equipment at low cost, he leapt at the opportunity.
Young and his daughter enrolled in the free Beekeeping 101 course and received 12 hives from the collective for a reduced price. From there, he formed White Oak Bee Co.
Last spring was their first harvest. It produced enough honey for his family and his honey-roasted coffee, which is White Oak Bee Co.’s signature item. This season, however, he has 14 hives ready to harvest and hopes to make a profit that he can reinvest in the business.
“Beekeeping and our relationship with the collective has really made that possible,” Young says.
The Appalachian Beekeeping Collective successfully trained 35 beekeepers this past year and plans to train another 55 this spring.
When it’s harvest time, the nonprofit will process, market and distribute the honey for its beekeepers for free. That can result in a nice chunk of change. In 2018, the market value for a pound of honey was about $7.33. A single hive can produce 20 to 100 pounds of honey a year, which means a single productive hive could earn its owner over $700 a year. With multiple hives, a beekeeper has the potential to make thousands of dollars every year.
And the bees do more than produce income for their owners. The forests provide nectar for the bees, and in turn, the bees pollinate these key natural habitats and create more plant diversity, says Parry Kietzman, an entomologist and educator at the collective.
Kietzman says she’s noticed people are more aware of the land and plants once they have bees.
“It seems to give people more of a handle on environmental concerns,” she says. “Simply because they’re worried about their bees.”
For others, like Young, it’s a chance to accomplish goals.
“What I feel most thankful for is the opportunity to take some dreams we’ve had for a really long time,” Young said. “And to really see them, kind of, come to be.”