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Unemployed Coal Miners Receive Training in Beekeeping

Displaced coal miners in West Virginia are finding alternative forms of employment to replace their coal-mining history.

Thousands of coal miners in West Virginia, one of the poorest states in the nation, are out of jobs and living below the poverty line in Appalachia. Coal miners are getting a chance at an alternative income thanks to the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective where they can learn beekeeping for free and extra cash.

Coal mining jobs in Appalachia started to decline in 1990, jobs fell from 132,000 to 53,000 in 2018. Considering that job opportunities in West Virginia are the lowest in the United States, the long-term effects of job loss in the mining sector have left the area’s economy devastated. Many residents struggle to make a living at any odd jobs they can find.

Loss of Mining Jobs Affects All State Industries and Entire Communities

the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective, operated by Appalachian Headwaters, has come up with a creative solution to at least provide an alternative source of income. The collective taught residents and out-of-work miners how to keep bees and construct hives, with the promise of earning supplemental income. The nonprofit was set up in 2016 with a $7.5 million settlement from a lawsuit filed against Alpha Natural Resources, a coal mine operator, for violating the Clean Water Act.

Cindy Bee, a beekeeping instructor with Appalachian Headwaters, said entire communities were affected and other industries also suffered when mining jobs disappeared, causing miners and almost everyone else to lose their livelihoods. But with the beekeeping initiative currently operating in 17 counties around the state, some people have been given an opportunity to earn a decent living again.

About 35 people have already benefited from the initiative and now operate their own beehives, with 50 more signed up for training. One of the beneficiaries is James Scyphers, an out-of-work miner who came from a generation of miners. Scyphers, who lamented the loss of lucrative mining, told NPR he wished the beekeeping initiative began in the area 30 years ago.

He said mining would never be like it used to be in the ’60s and ’70s, yet the people want to work. And since these people have been unemployed for so long, they need retraining at some hands-on labor such as beekeeping. (The federal government gave retraining grants starting in 2012, but they barely touched the need.) He said most coal miners are hardworking people who want to work with the opportunity provided by the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective.

Beekeepers Can Earn $732 per Hive and an Estimated $15,000 from 20 Bee Hives

“Beekeeping is hands-on work, like mining, and requires on-the-job training,” Scyphers said. “You need a good work ethic for both.”

Those trained for free by the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective receive beekeeping equipment and free bees to begin their own hives. Those who want more bees can obtain them at a discounted rate and enjoy ongoing training and mentorship until their hives begin to produce honey. Independent beekeepers operate between two to 20 beehives.

Beekeepers must wait one year before the honey from their hives can be harvested. The Appalachian Beekeeping Collective helps them with the collection, bottling and sale of their honey, paying the operators the prevalent market rate for the honey harvest. The next honey harvest will take place in spring 2019.

A productive hive can yield between 60 and 100 pounds of honey per harvesting season, with a pound selling for about $7.32 and about $732 per hive per season. Operators keeping 20 hives could earn an estimated $15,000 per honey harvesting season.


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