Former Appalachian coal miners are finding new work in unexpected places

Appalachians reconnect with nature to support their families.

Honeycomb bees
Bees on their honeycomb. CREDIT: Pexels

By Marlene Cimons

Mark Lilly, 59, grew up and still lives in West Virginia. He spent three decades as an insurance adjuster, often talking to people grappling with the effects of the coal industry’s decline. At the end of some very long days, he would escape to his bee hives.

“It was therapeutic,” he said. Life in coal country may no longer be what it once was, but “the bees haven’t changed,” he said.

Lilly has since retired from the insurance business, but he still tends to his honeybees. And now, he is using what he learned from these insects to help out-of-work miners and others hurt by the decline of coal — turning them into beekeepers, too. In January, Lilly will teach 35 people from southern West Virginia how to raise and manage bees and how to produce honey. Lilly’s class is part of a program through Appalachian Headwaters, a nonprofit that restores streams and forests harmed by mining and retrains coal workers for new jobs in sustainable industries.

Lilly sees beekeeping as a way for longtime Appalachians to preserve their connection to the land and to earn extra money during lean times. Some might even be able to support themselves and their families on income from bees.

“Most of the people in these coal towns are very open to anything that involves the outdoors and nature,” Lilly said. “Many of those who lost jobs in the mines are now working lower paid jobs because they don’t want to leave. They are tied to the land. We have an opportunity to go back to those communities and provide them with a new skill and some additional income, so they can stay where they want.”

Appalachians learn beekeeping skills.
Appalachians learn beekeeping skills. CREDIT: John Farrell

The Appalachian Beekeeping Collective was funded by a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal-state partnership that supports economic opportunities for the people of central Appalachia. 

“We want to reforest old mine sites and recreate the native forest ecosystem that would have been there if it had not been strip-mined,” said Kate Asquith, program director for Appalachian Headwaters, the grant recipient. “We started to look at ways we could do economic work out of that reforesting, and beekeeping came naturally. You have to bring in pollinators and honeybee hives are a big part of that.”

Asquith said that the collective “is still trying to figure out its pricing structure,” but believes that eventually the honey will sell well. She pointed out that raising bees also offers opportunities to add additional products or sidelines to the economic mix — for example, producing new nucleus bee colonies and high quality queens, “which is incredibly lucrative,” she said, as well as beeswax and propolis, a resinous material collected by honeybees believed to have antibiotic and other medicinal properties. “We believe that people who devote themselves full-time could earn a living wage and sustain a family,” she said.

Joe Lovett, an environmental lawyer and Appalachian Headwaters board member, agreed. “We love it here and wanted to do something to help the region recover and to create jobs that support people for the long term,” he said. “Beekeeping is one of those. It’s not only a sustainable job, but makes people aware of the natural world.”

Lilly believes in approaching people in these communities with an understanding of their culture and a deep respect for the region’s coal history. He and other organizers of the collective are careful about the language they use, and believe people are responding positively. They don’t paint coal as the villain — nor do they believe it is. They just try to explain the alternatives. “The coal fields [are] an area where environmentalists are seen as bad people, so we don’t use that word,” he said.

“When we talk to them, we don’t tell them that this is about the environment. I ask them, ‘What do you eat?’ and they will say fruit and nuts, among other things. Then I tell them, ‘Look at this insect. This insect is important. Without it, you wouldn’t have those fruits and nuts,’” Lilly said. “I tell them that what we do affects the entire chain, and they begin to understand. You then see this person grow into caring about the environment, although they still wouldn’t call themselves environmentalists. We are taking the first steps to helping them see that the environment is a really good thing.” 

Beekeepers inspect the honeycomb.
Beekeepers inspect the honeycomb. CREDIT: John Farrell

Appalachian Headwaters plans to expand the program from 35 to 85 people next year. The novice beekeepers will learn how bees breed and behave within their own society, and they will learn how to keep their hives healthy. The biggest challenge will be to overcome their fear of getting stung. Lilly has lost count of his stings over the years, but said he’s gotten used to it.

“I won’t tell anybody you’ll never get stung,” he said. “That’s a fallacy. But as they become comfortable with it, it becomes easier. The swelling and redness and itchiness decreases over time. That was always the worst part. You’d get stung and it would itch for three days. Now I get stung in the morning, and by lunch I can’t tell where it was.”

The Appalachian Beekeeping Collective plans to process, market, and distribute honey. The new beekeepers will receive hives either for free or at a reduced price, depending on their income. Appalachian Headwaters is exploring other economic projects to add in the coming years, too, such as developing native plant horticulture and non-timber forest products. “There are a bunch of different things you can grow in the Appalachian forest that have large value, such as wild, simulated cultivated ginseng,” Asquith said. The ultimate goal is to “expand the economic diversity in this region” and provide income for hundreds of Appalachians, she said. 

The eventual goal is to have thousands of hives flourishing in the area. Debbie Delaney, associate professor of entomology at the University of Delaware, who helped establish the collective’s first 500 colonies of bees last summer, predicted that “in that area of West Virginia, if they do things right, they should be able to get close to 200 pounds of honey off of each hive.”

Jars of honey.
Jars of honey. CREDIT: Pixabay 

Honey sells from $3 to $25 a pound, depending on whether beekeepers use chemicals to raise the insects, Asquith said. “Our beekeepers won’t be using chemicals, which adds a lot of value to the honey,” she said. The collective will process and store the honey in a large processing facility. The structure is the site of an old camp owned by coal companies that thousands of miners’ children attended.

“When I was there over the summer, at least twice a week somebody would drive by and say, ‘I went to camp here 50 years ago. This place means so much to me.’ So it’s really a special spot,” Delaney said. “There’s so much rich history there.”

All of those involved in the beekeeping collective recognize that the region needs time to recover, but this project represents an important step in that direction. “We spent a lot of years scarring the land,” Lilly said. “Now we will begin trying to heal some of those scars.”

Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art, and culture.