Get the buzz on the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective, a group giving people in former coal-mining communities a sustainable way to make a living.

Photography by Isabelle Baldwin
| Credit: Photography by Isabelle Baldwin

When coal-mining jobs went away, the economy of rural West Virginia went with them. Unemployment in some counties was double the national average. Enter the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective. In 2017, the nonprofit Appalachian Headwaters launched this one-of-a-kind training initiative to give displaced coal miners and low-income residents a way to supplement their wages and reconnect with the land through beekeeping. Operating in 17 counties throughout the state, the group has trained 90 beekeepers so far, with 40 more tapped for 2020. We chat with master beekeeper Cindy Bee—yes, that's her real name—about why the ABC is the bee's knees.

Why bring beekeeping to Appalachia?

It can be a great way to earn a sustainable living in rural areas, but the start-up costs and learning curve can be big barriers for some folks. We remove those barriers by offering 10 hours of free classes on natural beekeeping and safety, all of the equipment a family needs to get started, and one-on-one mentoring.

Do you check in on your students?

I go out six times a year to do house calls. The new beekeepers are so excited about what they're seeing in their hives that I get calls and questions 24 /7. Then we pay our partners top dollar per pound for the honey their hives produce, so they get the money right away. We handle the process of extracting, bottling, labeling to FDA standards, and selling it. Most of the partners make $2,000 to $5,000 in supplemental income per three-month spring season. In West Virginia, it's enough to make a huge difference to a lot of families.

Why are mining towns a good fit for beekeeping?

There's a long history of beekeeping in the South, but a lot of that knowledge has been lost, so it's a way to reconnect people to history and to the land. Our students haven proven to be wonderfully resourceful and adept at figuring out how to make something work. We've had partners sell beeswax candles, lip balm, honey-roasted coffee. The collective is a sweet testament to that resourcefulness.

This article originally appeared in our Harvest 2020 issue. Get the magazine here.