Dakota Lukach and Jazzlee Molineaux work together in their bee yard, about a 45-minute drive from Bluefield, West Virginia. The couple never expected to become beekeepers but are now two of the 100 beekeeper partners in the Appalachian Bee Collective.
The collective is a project of Appalachian Headwaters, an environmental education and land restoration nonprofit located in Lewisburg, West Virginia.
Lukach and Molineaux developed their beekeeping skills under the watchful eyes of Mark Lilly, mentor and head beekeeper of the Appalachian Bee Collective. Lilly is also a lifelong resident of the area and knowledgeable in its history.
“Counties in southeastern West Virginia were dependent on coal for their economy either directly or from spins-offs from coal – rail, for instance,” Lilly said.
The boom-and-bust cycle of mining and its overall production decline have left former coal counties with environmental and economic scars. Appalachian Headwaters works to help heal the region’s land and economy through projects like the Appalachian Bee Collective.
Most families in the service region have a few acres of land, a couple of cows, a garden, a few chickens, and even a beehive, according to consultants whom Appalachian Headwaters hired to help develop projects to restore land and create some income for residents. However, subsistence farming could not provide enough income to support a family. They also learned that residents are resilient and want to earn an income rather than receiving public aid.
The region’s deciduous forest of flowering trees provides pollen and nectar, and its people’s work ethic provides a motivated workforce, Lilly said.
The Appalachian Beehive Collective began with a two-fold mission: to provide a sustainable income for coal-dependent West Virginia counties and to educate those same counties about the importance of pollinators.
Lilly, hired in 2016, is a third-generation beekeeper learning from his grandfather in Sumners County. He is a master beekeeper and is excited to be a part of the collective. In 2017, he, along with entomologist Perry Kesterman, began assembling four tractor-trailer loads of bee hardware – 400 hives destined for collective partners and a demonstration bee yard.
The following year, Lilly and Kesterman began a road show to generate interest in Summers, Mercer, and Monroe counties, which are in the middle of coal country on the southern West Virginia border. Every meeting had a room packed with enthusiastic people.
Eligibility for partnership in Appalachian Bee Collective begins with a five-week beekeeping course where students learn the art and science of beekeeping. Prospective beekeepers then apply to become partners with the collective.
Applications ask for basic information, including the hive’s location and whether the hives have protection from bears – a significant West Virginia beekeeper problem. Applications asked about income and why the applicant wanted to become a beekeeper.
In addition to the application criteria, the first 10 new apiarists in each county needed to be close enough for Lilly to visit every two weeks.
Once accepted into the collective, these “newbies” receive the hive hardware and a nucleus of bees for each hive in their bee yard. Each hive and the “nuc” of bees are a $500 value. They also receive protective clothing, hive tools, smokers, new bees nutrition, and disease and parasite control medication. ABC takes care of all expenses as well as continual mentoring and advice.
Currently, the collective has over 100 partners and 800 hives in 13 counties that are predominately coal-dependent.
What makes this area of the state dependent on coal also makes it a perfect location for honey production. The mountains of West Virginia, with its limited infrastructure, are covered with flowering forests – honey locust, sourwood, basswood, and tulip poplar, and we can harvest varietal honey. Lilly explained.
Harvesting varietal honey, which must be predominantly from a single type of flower, requires much more management than regular honey harvest. Beekeepers must harvest when specific trees are in bloom. –For example, the first tree to bloom is the honey locust. Lilly makes sure the beekeepers know the bloom cycle for each tree species to ensure the honey is harvested only during the “bloom” of each species. Beekeepers must collect the honey as soon as that bloom is over.
Each variety has a distinct taste and color. The Appalachian Bee Collective labels and markets each variety. Honey from bees that harvest all season has a wildflower honey label.
Beekeepers take their hives to the collective’s headquarters at Camp Waldo, near Hinton. The beekeepers receive a wholesale price of $6 per pound. Lilly says that’s an above-average price. Wholesale honey sells for $2-$4 on the open market, he said. The collective purifies, stores, bottles, and markets the honey for $15 a pound. The Appalachian Bee Collective is a nonprofit, and all proceeds go back into funding additional partners.
The 100 partners range in production from three or four hives to nearly 200. Lilly recounted one success story after another. He recalled one partner working part-time at a fast-food restaurant 45 minutes away from her home. The partner made practically no money considering gas and child-care expenses. This partner could quit the parttime job and stay home with her children by keeping just a few hives.
What’s been the biggest success?
“Seeing a partner receive a check for nearly $9,000 and watch them realize what they accomplished,” Lilly said without hesitation.
The partners earned $95,000 collectively from the 2022 harvest, with the top 10 producers earning over $5,000 each, Lilly said. He said this year’s harvest will likely bring in over $100,000.
There are other successes from the collective. Many partners now tell the stories of bees and honey to school groups. While most beekeepers have no formal teaching experience, they can be excellent storytellers.
The beekeepers in bee collective develop a special bond and camaraderie, Lilly said. At the spring partners meeting, partners are eager to talk and share what worked and what didn’t. One partner who markets beeswax and beeswax crafts holds workshops to teach other partners. “There are no secrets,” Lilly said.
As the beekeeping couple Lukach and Molineaux check the hives, they discuss the collective’s importance to their family and future. The honey income allows Molineaux to be a full-time mom with their 5-year-old daughter, Cataleya, who has her own bee suit. Dakota hopes to grow their hives to over 200, enabling him to be a full-time beekeeper.
Toni Wilson Riley is a retired Cooperative Extension 4-H Youth Development Agent and lives in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, on a small goat farm.