Unemployed Appalachian Coal Miners Are Being Retrained As Beekeepers

The US coal industry is on the decline, and this led to the redundancy of about 100,000 miners in West Virginia.  Yet, a new nonprofit believes a new, more environmentally-friendly industry can revive the region: beekeeping.

Appalachian Headwaters operates the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective. The charity was founded in 2016 with funds from a $7.5 million settlement from a lawsuit against coal mine company Alpha Natural Resources for violating the Clean Water Act.

The area now has the highest unemployment rate in the country, and the money has been used to fund environmental restoration projects and to develop sustainable economic opportunities in the region.

The nonprofit organization works to develop sustainable economic opportunities while restoring damaged ecosystems in central Appalachia.

All their current programs, community beekeeping, mined land restoration, and native plant horticultural, are designed and implemented to create local, long-term jobs.

The nonprofit teaches and supports people as they learn to participate in growth industries, and helps displaced or underemployed workers to earn income while repairing their natural environment.

The nonprofit also helps mitigate the barriers to entering the beekeeping profession, which can include a steep cost for supplies as well as a learning curve. Therefore, graduates of the free “Introduction to Beekeeping” classes get equipment, and free or reduced-cost bees, and have access to ongoing training and mentorship. They then maintain between two and 20 hives.

The educational staff supports the members by teaching them beekeeping skills in classrooms and then through visits to their homes to monitor their progress, building up to more advanced skills over time.

Plus, the training is open to all West Virginia residents who are at or below the federal poverty rate.

According to their website:

“The program originally began as an effort to ensure we had the pollinators necessary to help our mined land restoration projects succeed. It quickly evolved into a workforce development program as we realized the significant economic opportunities offered by beekeeping.

The Beekeeping Collective has the potential to bring millions of dollars into the region, offering job options and supplemental incomes for hundreds of people.”

They harvested their first honey this spring 2019. Beekeepers maintain their own hives, and then the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective collects, bottles, and sells honey from those hives. In turn, the coal miners-turned-beekeepers are paid market rate by the Collective for the honey harvest, which is currently $7 a pound (€15/Kg).

A strong beehive can produce between 60 and 100 pounds of honey, so at an average retail price of $700 per hive, 20 hives could earn $15,000 (€13,477/£11,655) per season.

This program is currently focused on 17 counties in southern West Virginia, but the goal is to expand into southwestern Virginia and eastern Kentucky.

The charity also offers training in making lip balm, candles, and other beeswax products for additional income.

People are struggling to make ends meet, so they are happy to get a decent supplemental income.

Moreover, beekeeping provides a living place for bees, and thus ensures their survival while they are under a threat of extinction, and improves the health and biodiversity of local ecosystems.

To help them find new job opportunities and get supplemental income, the collective offers beekeeping training to displaced coal miners and low-income residents of mining communities throughout the state.

In the area, over 28% of residents live in poverty and jobs are scarce, so these opportunities for additional income are more than welcome.

Cindy Bee, a master beekeeper with Appalachian Headwaters, said:

“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. We’re doing something that can boost the town up.”