Leisa Moten has a stable job as a church administrative assistant in West Virginia, but like some others in her town of Pipestem, which has a population of 846, she is living below the poverty line, earning $15,800 a year.
Making ends meet is sometimes a challenge, she said, and well-paying jobs can be hard to come by. So Moten, 58, was interested when she learned that a nonprofit in her community, Appalachian Beekeeping Collective, was looking for several dozen people to train as beekeepers, then buy their honey. It’s an effort to help rebuild 15 West Virginia counties harmed by job losses caused by the deep decline in coal mining.
“When coal mining jobs went away, our economy went with them,” Moten said.
Moten decided to give beekeeping a try. Her husband, Eddy Moten, a former hospital radiation therapy technician who is disabled and no longer able to work, joined her.
They received three hives last May, and their first honey will be harvested this spring for a profit of $6 per pound. She estimates that will bring in $1,200 and $1,800 to pay off a few bills and invest in her new business, Meant to Bee Apiary and Artisan Creations.
Moten plans to sell a few jars of honey to friends and also craft and sell homemade honey-scented soaps and lip balm made with organic beeswax.
Getting stung now and then is a small price to pay, she said, for some extra pocket money and fresh honey for her breakfast toast.
Moten is among 35 West Virginians who became apprentice beekeepers last year after taking Beekeeping 101 classes through the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective program operated by Appalachian Headwaters, a nonprofit started in 2016 to restore native hardwood forests and streams on former mining sites throughout central Appalachia.
With another 55 “wannabe” keepers currently being trained in a new round of classes, beehives are a “win-win-win” for the region, program co-founder Kate Asquith said.
Besides supplementing the incomes of West Virginians living at or below the poverty level, she said, beekeeping will help to pollinate scarred landscapes and perhaps give a boost to the threatened honeybee population. Worker bees fly away from their boxes to pollinate, then return to tell other bees through a “waggle” dance where to find a nectar source.
As an incentive for beekeepers, equipment is free for those who are part of the program, and staff workers will handle the sticky job of harvesting, cleaning and bottling the honey every spring and summer.
"The cost to each beekeeper is nothing except their time," Asquith said. "In West Virginia, even though many people live in poverty, they have a lot of open space, free of pesticides and herbicides, to keep hives."
Appalachians have been tied to their land for generations, said Asquith, but when mining jobs in the eastern United States began to dwindle after coal prices fell in the 1980s, young people often felt they had no choice but to leave.
"People are migrating out and not moving in, and entire communities built around the coal industry are in serious decline," she said. "But bees are good ambassadors. Our hope is that through beekeeping, people will be able to build up their skill base."
James Scyphers, a former coal miner and carpenter from Athens, W.Va., has been able to do just that. When he learned about two years ago that the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective was looking for somebody to help build beehives at the nonprofit’s new field office in Hinton, near Athens, he applied, thinking he might earn extra spending money for a few months.
"I really liked fooling with the honeybees, though, and pretty soon, I was taking beekeeping classes," he said.
Scyphers, 69, who followed his dad and grandfather into a life of working underground in narrow and sometimes dangerous passages, was laid off in the mid-1980s when the coal mine he worked for shut down, he said. Overnight, the father of two went from earning $20 an hour to $6 an hour as a carpenter — a job he was thankful to find.
"It was a struggle, but we got through it," he said. "We had to. We found out how much less we could really live on."
Now Scyphers is working full time for the collective, building bee boxes, tending bees and mixing sugar with water to form sugar cakes to help honeybees survive the winter, He also looks after four hives of his own at home. He says he’s never been happier.
“It’s the most satisfying job I’ve ever had, I wish we’d had this opportunity 30 years ago,” he said. “Beekeeping is something with the potential to help lots of people. I’d encourage anybody who worked in the mines to try it. You’re working with your hands, you’re outside in nature, and nothing else out there has the work ethic of the honeybee.”
For Jason Young, a school bus driver from White Oak, W.Va., who is raising six children with his wife, Angela, beekeeping will hopefully bring in enough extra income to grow the business he just started, White Oak Bee Co., he said.
Young has 13 hives and has developed a honey-roasted coffee called Appalachian Honey Bean.
“I’ve always loved coffee, and I thought that a honey coffee might help to separate me from the other local beekeepers,” he said.
There is another sweet incentive for Young to put on a bee suit once a week and check on the hives he keeps on his property and at a friend's small farm: his daughter, Rosalyn, 16, also enjoys beekeeping. They took classes together through the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective.
"She's a daddy's girl," said Young, 41. "I'd have to say that working with the bees has brought us closer together.”
Young and other new beekeepers have been motivated to succeed in part by one of their teachers, a master beekeeper named Cindy Bee. (Yes, that’s her real name.)
Bee, 64, comes from a long line of apiarists and learned the craft from her father. When she learned a year ago that an educator was needed for the Appalachian collective, she said she didn’t hesitate to move to Hinton from Portland, Maine.
“Beekeeping is a perfect fit here," she said.
With a colony of between 40,000 and 60,000 bees in each hive, a hive can produce around 100 pounds of honey every season, providing that the weather cooperates, said Bee, who oversees more than 1,000 hives. Current plans are for the honey harvest this spring to be sold by the collective online and in local stores. Once they get their flow, they’ll decide how much to sell it for, based on whether there is a plentiful or sparse harvest.
"The spring honey produced here is light and sweet with the flavor of blackberries, while the fall honey is dark, rich and delicious," she said. "Most of the fall honey is left for the bees to live on during the winter. But if the hives stay strong through spring, there should be a good crop of honey in June.”
The honey will be extracted, cleaned, bottled and sold by the collective’s employees, after each apprentice beekeeper is paid $6 per pound. Each participant will be allowed to keep 10 pounds of honey for their personal use, Asquith said.
Carie Ortman, 50, said she's looking forward to her first crop of honey from the beehives she put in her yard last year.
Ortman, who suffers from fibromyalgia, said she is unable to hold a full-time job. Her husband recently had triple heart bypass surgery and can’t yet return to the curio shop he owns near their home in Blue Sulphur Springs.
Ortman, who has been selling eggs from her flock of 400 chickens to get by, said she plans to use the extra income from her honey to catch up on some bills.
“Then I’m going to look into expanding my bees," she said, adding that she loves being around them.
Ortman said she finds them calming. “When I’m having a bad day, I always go out to the hives,” she said. “The humming of the bees and the serenity around the beehives helps me to focus and relax. It’s very therapeutic.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Pipestem, W.Va.