By CYNTHIA McCLOUD
The State Journal
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Honeybees are part of a plan to create jobs, diversify the economy and redevelop reclaimed mine lands in Southern West Virginia.
Appalachian Headwaters, Green Forests Work, the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and New River Community and Technical College are working together on a beekeeping collective and native plant production project in 14 coal-producing counties. They’re armed with a $1.5 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to help.
Since Appalachian Headwaters started in Southern West Virginia, its first and foremost activity has been the reforestation of mined land, said VP of Programs Kate Asquith. But to recreate the flora at sites that were originally forested, the group needs pollinators and native plants. The pollinators left when the vegetation was removed during mining. When the group is trying to get plants to flourish on the sites, they bring in pollinators — enter the honeybees.
“There’s a much greater opportunity for economic development from both of these activities well beyond the restoration work we’re doing,” she said.
Tending bees or growing plants will make work for underemployed or unemployed folks in Summers, Mercer, Webster, Fayette, Nicholas, Wyoming, McDowell, Raleigh, Kanawha, Boone, Logan, Mingo, Wayne and Lincoln counties.
“A backyard beekeeper with 20, 30 hives can make a significant income close to $15,000, $20,000,” Asquith said. “Once they get established, there are a lot of ways to make more money.”
Keepers can profit not only from selling 60 to 80 pounds of surplus honey off each hive but also from splitting their hives and selling the nucleus colony for about $200, she said. Beekeepers also can rent their hives to provide pollination services on restoration sites.
“It’s a way people can have a job in their community and stay in their community,” Asquith said. “And it’s really good work. It’s useful. It makes you get out and do something, and it’s something most people can learn how to do.”
The vocation is expensive to start; each hive costs between $375 and $500 to establish. The collective will help people; depending on each situation, the keepers may receive bees at low or no cost.
“We won’t make any money off selling bees or hives,” Asquith said. “We can give people a loan that will get paid back over time through their honey sales.”
The program will provide equipment and training for anyone willing to learn and take on the job.
“There’s quite a learning curve if you want to get into beekeeping,” Asquith said. “It’s hard to justify going out on a limb to get started and then it’s hard at the back end to try to process the honey, sell it for a good price, bottle it and market it.”
The project aims to overcome all those barriers.
Beekeeper educators on staff will recruit people to the program and later do site visits to help them work their bees, making sure they’re using best practices, taking out guesswork that can overwhelm a new keeper, Asquith said. The experts also will get 520 hives established this year on mine sites and other locations.
“When all the bees are settled in the hives, we’ll start doing educational programming across the target region. Most of the recruiting will be done through those classes,” Asquith said. “We’ll have these classes through fall and winter to get a core of people we can put bees out with next spring.
After prospective beekeepers take introductory training and more advanced classes, they will get their hives next spring, likely splits from the originals that have grown strong over the year.
To help the keepers distribute and market their honey when it is produced, the collective will process it at a center Appalachian Headwaters is building at Camp Thomas E. Lightfoot in Summers County. Another processing plant is being planned for Logan, Boone or Mingo County, she said.
“We’re going to have sophisticated marketing and a distribution network,” Asquith said. “We can get more money if we can sell to nicer grocery chains or gourmet food stores outside of West Virginia in some of the more affluent areas.”
And by aggregating the product, the collective can get more money for it than an individual beekeeper could by himself.
“West Virginia is one of the best places to produce honey because it has such an amazing array of flowering plants,” Asquith said.
The other part of the collective is a program to grow native plants. It will receive only $200,000 of the $1.5 million ARC grant.
“Native plants are a huge and growing part of the landscaping business, but there is an incredibly short supply of good native plants being grown,” Asquith said. “West Virginia has great growing conditions for plants that are in high demand along the East Coast.”
Participants will learn how to raise in-demand plants, and the collective will sell them to companies doing reclamation work and nurseries in the Mid-Atlantic Region.
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