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Bee-ginning a new Appalachian industry

honey bee

Challenges remain, but apiculturists believe Eastern Kentucky can fill growing U.S. demand for honey, wax and bees

By Kristi L. Branham | The Lane Report

Honeybees bring to mind stings of summers past, maybe a cute cartoon character that endorses breakfast cereal and, of course, honey. However, deeper exploration into the everyday business of bees reveals a much more complex, mostly overlooked and underfunded yet vital industry that without some help of the human kind might not maintain flight.

Should the U.S. bee industry succumb to the problems that beset it, agribusiness and consumers would feel a financial sting. There are early efforts, though, to make Eastern Kentucky synonymous with and the home of the honeybee.

It is work that could sweeten up that region’s anemic economy at a time of special need as coal mining job losses create a bitter taste. However, as it turns out, coal companies could have a key role if an envisioned Appalachian bee industry is to be established – which is very possible since there is a national need and the region offers unique advantages.

The phrase “busy as a bee,” used to describe someone who never stops working, is no exaggeration. Honeybees and the pollination they provide figure crucially into over $30 billion of U.S. agribusiness in the United States, but bee populations have taken repeated hits in recent decades.

The number of bee colonies fell 32 percent in 20 years from a high of 3.44 million colonies in 1989 to a recent low of 2.34 million bee colonies in 2008. Populations did rebound to 2.69 million colonies in 2010 but fell again the next year and in 2013 stood at 2.64 million, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and federal Department of Commerce.

Beyond the population issue, beekeepers and apiculturists always strive to increase and maintain honey production by their colonies, but they must contend with changing weather and other conditions in addition to threats from new and traditional bee health antagonists. Honey production levels are down from peaks achieved two decades ago. The average number of pounds of honey produced per U.S. bee colony reached the upper 70s and low 80s in the 1990s, but from 2000 to 2012 it declined by 33 percent to 56 pounds per colony.

Filling demand gap for honey, wax, bees

Americans consume 400 million pounds of honey a year – demand and prices are up sharply for that which is locally produced – while U.S. bees produce less than 150 million pounds, according to the USDA. Other uses bring annual U.S. demand to 460 million pounds, an amount that grossly outweighs supply and forces large-scale honey imports from Asia and South America.

Dr. Tammy Horn, director of Coal Country Beeworks at Eastern Kentucky University, recently received a special grant to continue investigation and assessment of native bee populations on reclaimed surface mining sites in Appalachia. (Photo by Chris Radcliffe)

Meanwhile, beeswax for use in U.S. cosmetic products is imported from Africa because of high pesticide usage in the United States. Queen bees are brought to the American mainland from Hawaii to meet early spring demand for new colonies.

Kentucky has the potential to fill the national honey supply disparity as well as gaps in other U.S. food production that are directly or indirectly affected by honey bees, according to Tammy Horn, a Ph.D apiculturist with Eastern Kentucky University’s Center for Development Entrepreneurship and Technology.

Currently, the bee industry is a high-demand market operating without support from federal agencies that other key areas of agribusiness receive. Although beekeepers toil alongside corn, soybean, wheat and cotton farmers, they sustain their hives without the subsidies, financial safety nets and policy support granted to other farm sectors. However, the bee industry may finally begin to gain momentum with the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, which directs the USDA to encourage farmers to protect pollinator habitat as part of voluntary conservation plans.

Seeing an opportunity to make Kentucky a viable resource for honey production and hive growth, researchers and state economic development leaders got busy making plans for economically distressed counties in Eastern Kentucky to use reclaimed coal mining properties for new hives. For several years already, EKU’s Horn has been actively working to create a new agricultural infrastructure in Eastern Kentucky.

Bees formerly thrived there but they were decimated by mite infestations in the 1980s and populations have yet to recover. In seeking to create a viable forest-based bee industry, Horn has partnered with the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative (ARRI) with support from other state agencies and universities. She describes the bee industry as an economic tiger with five tails: honey production; wax production; queen bee production; pollination; and extension work.

Appalachian tree nectars desirable

Horn, director of Coal Country Beeworks, which was founded in 2008 at the Eastern Kentucky Environmental Research Institute at EKU, is thinking big, as in mass production, and hopes to see Kentucky honey exported alongside Kentucky coal.

If the efforts of ARRI, CCB and beekeepers around Eastern Kentucky are successful, Horn believes systems would be in place to tame this economic tiger within five years. Progress is underway.

When not coordinating and teaching bee classes in various workshops and conferences, she works to inspire coal companies to again plant the high-nectar- or high-pollen-producing native Appalachia trees bees love, such as tulip poplars, black locust and sourwoods as well as wildflowers to help support beekeeping and related sustainable forest industries.

A queen bee, marked with a yellow dot, is shown in one of Dr. Tammy Horn’s hives. Researchers, along with economic development leaders, are working to make Kentucky a viable location for honey production. (Photo by Cordis Cuzz Bishop)

There are obstacles, one of which is convincing the USDA to acknowledge trees as crops. The Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative is helping advocate this policy change. It is unclear how much progress is being made, but the commonwealth’s native trees are considered an important element of the plan. The sourwood, for example, provides abundant nectar and offers a competitive edge for Kentucky’s emerging honey industry because it adds value by giving a unique, desirable taste.

Considering trees as crops with a return on investment, like soybeans or wheat, is just one hurdle. For the industry to grow wings and start buzzing, the public’s perception of a tree’s worth must change, according to Horn and her cohorts. Other conditions that need met are innovation, support from university leaders and federal support such as assistance programs to cover losses for honey bee producers, implemented by the 2014 Farm Bill. This, along with Kentucky’s unique land conditions and large unemployed labor base, will make forest-based beekeeping viable.

While working to create a forest-based bee industry, Horn is simultaneously rebuilding bee populations in the region. Bees once thrived in Appalachia’s diverse landscapes. However, the introduction of tracheal and varroa mites in the 1980s devastated bee populations, and they are still recovering.

Universities and research specialists are addressing the threat of tracheal and varroa mites to bee populations. Thomas Webster, Ph.D., apiculture researcher and extension specialist at Kentucky State University since 1988, focuses his research toward sustainable control of honey bee disease and parasites. Through the Heartland Apicultural Society, Webster collaborates with colleagues and beekeepers in the Midwest and Deep South to educate hive owners on prevention and control of disease and parasites as well as business profitability.

Seller’s market for local honey

“Sideliners,” a term used to describe those who take on beekeeping as supplemental income, is increasing in number and popularity. Sideliners may own one to 100 hives, kept either in backyards or on farms to help pollinate crops – nowadays after ensuring those crops are not exposed to pesticides deadly to bee hives. Farmers who partner with beekeepers usually increase the value of their crops. Bees provide pollination, which aids in the growth and increased seed set of crops such as cherries, almonds, strawberries, apples, oranges, cucumbers, tomatoes and pumpkins. Moreover, domestic and local honey is in increasing demand.

“It’s a seller’s market,” Webster said. “It doesn’t need marketing.”

Honey prices are up, and so is demand for and plantings of crops pollinated by bees. The 2014 Kentucky State Fair will sell honey at $8.50 per pound, up by more than 40 percent from the 2012 price of $6. And if bees gather their pollen from sourwood, the price could range from $10 or $12 per pound.

Additionally, a valuable byproduct of the honey extraction process is beeswax, another portion of Horn’s five-tailed economic tiger.

Clay Guthrie of beekeeping supplier Dadant & Sons in Frankfort inspects blocks of beeswax, which he will ship to western Illinois for candle production. (Photo by Kristi L. Branham)

Clay Guthrie, the Frankfort location manager of Dadant & Sons, the Hamilton, Ill.-based beekeeping supplier that is the world’s oldest and largest, buys beeswax for around $3.30 per pound. Guthrie will ship the wax to headquarters near the Mississippi in far western Illinois for candle production. Bulk wax is expected to sell for $10 per pound to consumers at this year’s Kentucky State Fair.

Bees typically thrive in the mountains, and lots of rural Appalachian land is underutilized since its slopes make row crop production difficult. Chemicals used on corn, wheat and soybeans are harmful for bee colonies, however, so the lack of traditional agribusiness is a benefit for beekeeping. Moreover, forest-based hives are less vulnerable to aerial spraying, so a regional bee industry and farming are not mutually exclusive. Queen bees are the most important determiner of the health of the hive and sell for $25 each. However, selective breeding has produced mite-resistant queen bees, in which case the price increases to $500.

Weather also plays a crucial role in hive health. The colder than normal 2013-14 winter was particularly difficult for beekeepers, with many losing 50 percent or more of their hives.

Agribusinessmen and women who farm corn or wheat can turn to insurance to cover weather-related crop losses, but there are no such federal support programs for beekeepers. This is considered to be another obstacle to building a truly viable industry.

Virtually all work related to building a bee industry, including salaries and use of research facilities, is paid for by obtaining grants. Grants Horn received recently came from the Steele-Reese Foundation, while others in the past few years came from Alltech and TECO Coal, whose operations in Eastern Kentucky are part of the TECO Energy operations that includes Tampa Electric and Peoples Gas.

Horn’s research is externally funded, and she relies on grant money to pay her research staff. When the grant money runs out, so does research and extension work, she said.

Attitudes and policies beginning to improve

Seedlings such this one on a former coal mining site near Hazard are among 100,000 bee-friendly native Appalachian trees planted on 500 acres since 2008 to produce pollen and nectar favorable for establishing a honeybee industry in Eastern Kentucky.

As director of Coal Country Beeworks for six years, Horn has been a point person in working along with ARRI to get coal companies to plant sourwood and poplar and under-canopy foliage, including wildflowers, that attracts bees when land is reclaimed after coal has been extracted from a site and flood control and erosion prevention priorities have been met. Until a decade ago, soil compaction was often the option taken because of potential land taxes. When considering post-mining land uses, the Office of Surface Mining once listed commercial development, residential development and entertainment venues such as theme parks as first options. But in the past 15 years, there has been an effort to flip that list of priorities. Previously, last on the list and yet most cost effective was “forest and other wastelands – worded exactly like that,” an exasperated Horn said.

Extension work and other knowledge-based vocations, the fifth tail of the economic tiger, are disappearing.

Public agricultural support program extensions that focused on bee classes for students studying agriculture, horticulture and biology were once dispersed throughout the United States. Where formerly there were eight federal bee labs today there are three, located in Maryland, Arizona and Utah.

In Kentucky, she said, private Berea College offers beekeeping classes, and those are only available every other year.

However, this multifaceted industry is gearing up to take flight. In February, Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer included honey bees as part of the state’s marketing efforts to assist agricultural potential in Eastern Kentucky. The new Appalachia Proud Initiative, part of those efforts, will help make a forest-based bee industry in Eastern Kentucky a very real possibility. The challenges lie in federal and university support that are crucial to the success of the bees, according to Horn.

Meanwhile, the Eastern Apiculture Society will host a conference in Richmond July 28-Aug. 1 at Eastern Kentucky University. The conference will include local and international experts as well as workshops and lectures surrounding the bee industry. For more information, visit easternapiculture.org.

Kristi L. Branham is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at editorial@lanereport.com.

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Published on May 06, 2014

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