CATCH THE BUZZ – It’s All About the Bees: Displaced Workers Find Jobs Within an Appalachian Tradition

Carolyn Fortuna, Ph.D.

No one expects sustainable energy and lifestyle businesses to completely replace the fossil fuel jobs that have been lost. But advocates in both areas are hoping that sustainability career paths can assist displaced workers and the next generation to find satisfying employment and create more diversified, robust local economies. Sustainable businesses with an emphasis on small, locally-based options keep the wealth created by local labor circulating in the community.

Jobs are blossoming in sustainable energy, transportation, and energy efficiency. We’re seeing opportunities in retrofitting, mass transit, safe bike and pedestrian traffic, regional food systems based on sustainable organic agriculture, clean manufacturing, infrastructure, and public services — education, youth programs, child care, senior care. The future as forecast by the Green Party in the run-up to the 2016 US election is already emerging around us today. Money from fossil fuels and other dead-end industries is being steadily directed toward research in wind, solar, and geothermal as well as wave and tidal power. We’re seeing investments in sustainable, non-toxic materials, closed-loop cycles that eliminate waste and pollution, organic agriculture, permaculture, and sustainable forestry.

Let’s zoom in on the buzz (pun intended) of one such career shift and how it’s rejuvenating entire communities through workforce development programs and associated economic opportunities. It’s fun to see the enthusiasm of these retrained workers.

In Oil and Honey, Bill McKibben uses the metaphor of the hard work and determination it takes to raise local Vermont bees free of chemicals to describe the arduous but possible journey of active resistance to the fossil fuel industry. Instead of a “continent currently baking — a continent that feels like a giant never-ending disaster film,” local beekeeping “is the closest thing to a sweet spot” (p. 169). To McKibben, beekeeping resides in the proverbial “land of milk and honey” (p. 52) — closely related, revelatory, and a bit romantic.

In an interview with NPR, James Scyphers talked about his family’s 3-generation legacy of mining coal in West Virginia. “These were the best jobs in the area; we depended on ’em,” he recalled of his own 20-year coal mining career. As the mining jobs declined from 132,000 in 1990 to 53,000 in 2018, Scyphers found himself without work and turning to construction and odd jobs to make ends meet. West Virginia has the lowest labor-force participation rate in the nation.

Enter the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective. Scyphers started with the group by building hives and tending bees. “Beekeeping is hands-on work, like mining, and requires on-the-job training,” Scyphers explained. “You need a good work ethic for both. I wish this group had been here 30 years ago. Our region needs it.”

Appalachian Headwaters operates the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective, continuing a long-standing tradition of Appalachian apiculture. The program originally began as an effort to ensure there were enough pollinators necessary to help mined land restoration projects succeed — the undertold story of restoring ecosystems damaged by mining in central Appalachia. It quickly evolved into a workforce development program as Appalachian Headwaters realized the significant economic opportunities offered by beekeeping.

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

The nonprofit was formed in 2016 to invest a $7.5 million settlement from a lawsuit against coal mine operator Alpha Natural Resources (its website is semantically remarkable due to a focus on profitability with no reflection at all about the environmental impacts of its coal mining operations). The corporation was cited for violations of the Clean Water Act, which established the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the US and regulating quality standards for surface waters. The Alpha Natural Resources settlement money has been used to fund environmental restoration projects and to develop sustainable economic opportunities in the once-thriving coal-mining communities of West Virginia.

The Appalachian Beekeeping Collective offers beekeeping training to displaced coal miners and low-income residents of mining communities throughout the state, with the goal of helping them find new job opportunities and generate supplemental income by earning a sustainable income through beekeeping. They train new beekeeper-entrepreneurs to maintain honey bee hives for profit. Since start-up costs can be considerable and it takes time to learn the ins and outs of beekeeping, the Collective provides the materials and support necessary to overcome the considerable barriers to getting started, plus they stay active with the new beekeepers through collective processing and marketing.

The program provides initial bee colonies and materials for free or at reduced cost on an income-based sliding scale. Hive boxes, equipment, education, and support are also part of the educational package for new beekeepers, which starts in classrooms and then moves to home visits to monitor their progress and build advanced skills. Partners maintain between 2 and 20 hives.

Appalachian Headwaters will process, market, and distribute products like honey and wax to high-demand markets otherwise inaccessible to small-scale beekeepers, earning the best return for their members. The program is currently focused on 17 counties in southern West Virginia, with the goal of expanding into southwestern Virginia and eastern Kentucky. To date, the nonprofit, based in the small town of Hinton, has trained 35 beekeepers (with an estimated 50 more signed up for the next round of classes).

A strong beehive can produce between 60 and 100 pounds of honey per season, and, at an average retail price of $7.32 per pound in 2018, beekeepers could earn an estimated $732 in supplemental income per hive per season.

Curtis Jones of Hinton, WV says, “They’ve helped me with everything I’ve asked. They come and check you out. Help you with the bees. Tell you what’s going on. Hands-on experience — that’s what people need.”

He added, “There’s a lot of people out there that are wanting to get into it. They just don’t know how to go about it. They’re helping me; it’s a learning experience. And I hope it’s something that will help me to help other people to keep going.”