Honeybees Help Displaced Workers in West Virginia

West Virginia was once a thriving coal-producing state.  But as mines started closing, miners — and many others in the coal industry — found themselves without jobs.

James Scyphers was one of those affected.  Today, the former coal miner is thrilled to be working above ground.

From coal to gold

On this perfect summer day on a rural farm near Beckley, West Virginia, he tends to a busy hive of bees. Dressed in a pair of old jean overalls and a beekeeping veil to protect his head, he carefully lifts a frame from the hive and inspects it to make sure his bees are doing well.

Former coalminer James Scyphers looks for the Queen bee from his beehive in West Virginia.
Former coal miner James Scyphers looks for the Queen bee from his beehive in West Virginia. (VOA/ Julie Taboh)

​​The Vietnam veteran worked in construction, and was a coal miner for 16 years, but he traded in his hard hat for a veil.

“It takes a special breed to be in a coal mine,” he says. “A lot of times underground, you’re working in water and dark conditions …and at times it’s miserable. This is not miserable. This is a real enjoyable job.”

Scyphers loves being outdoors, and has come to respect, and appreciate, honeybees. “I have learned that they’re the most fascinating insect and I learn more about them every day. I have not had a better job in my 40-some years of working.”

The work is also benefiting him financially.

He lives on Social Security and a small minor’s pension, so beekeeping, he says, has provided a nice boost in income.

ABC’s of beekeeping

Scyphers found his job through the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective, a nonprofit program that teaches displaced workers — and other low-income West Virginians looking to earn extra income — how to become beekeepers.

After completing a free, five-week program, aspiring beekeepers are given bees, hives and all the necessary supplies to get them started. Mentors work with them one-on-one throughout the beekeeping season, and help them harvest the honey for cash when the season ends.

Beekeeping brings extra income to residents of West Virginia.
Beekeeping brings extra income to residents of West Virginia. (VOA/Julie Taboh).

​​Mark Lilly has been keeping bees in West Virginia for more than 20 years. He is both mentor and educator with the collective, and says the initiative was created to address the dramatic drop in employment in the region.

“In my previous job, I traveled a lot of these areas, so for the past 30 years, I’ve watched them slowly die,” he says. “So you see the people now have, like hopelessness, and I think we’re the starting point, maybe, to bring some hope to some of these communities.”

“So if we can teach a family to maybe generate $3,000 to $5,000 of additional income [a year], if you’re only making $30,000, that’s a huge, huge improvement in your lifestyle,” he adds.

Getting a buzz on…

But it’s the one-on-one mentoring that’s the best part of the program for veteran Mike Davis, who gets a visit from Lilly every month. “We go through the bees and even though we went through the class, actually being in the boxes with the bees, handling them, seeing what it is that we’re talking about, you can visualize the concept so much easier.”

And there are other benefits, he adds. “It gives you something to look forward to on a daily basis, you’re anticipating the growth of your hive … The bees are not only calming, it’s like, they’re friends; similar to dogs that other people have, I have that same affection for my bees.”

Then there’s the honey that comes from those bees.

The unique flora and fauna of West Virginia help create clean, richly flavored honey.
The unique flora and fauna of West Virginia help create clean, richly flavored honey. (VOA/ Julie Taboh)

Liquid gold

“This area of southern West Virginia is the largest forage in the world,” he explains. “We don’t have pesticides, insecticides, because we don’t have commercial farming. So we have the trees, we have a lot of water, the conditions are great for the bees.”

And that translates into great tasting honey. Since West Virginia is home to some of the most diverse species of plants in the world, it creates tremendous nectar sources for the bees.

“The honey that these bees make, it tastes different than anywhere else,” says Cheryl Flanagan, who left the corporate world to live in West Virginia. “I’ve lived all over the states, and this honey has a smokier, richer, really deep flavor to it. And it’s the best honey I’ve ever tasted.”

Flanagan loves her new hobby.

“Two months ago I knew nothing about bees. Today, I am learning hand-in-hand with the master beekeeper, and I am amazed at how absolutely different than what I thought bees were like.”

Worried at first her bees would sting, Flanagan soon discovered that the industrious insects were just not that into her. “They have a whole community, it’s very sophisticated, they know what they’re supposed to do as soon as they’re hatched … It’s just amazing to me to be a part of that, and the more I learn, the more I want to know.” 

Protecting natural treasures

And that is the main objective of the program, says Terri Giles, Vice President of Government Relations for Appalachian Headwaters, which oversees the beekeeping collective.

The non-profit organization has several programs in place for creating long-term jobs for West Virginians while helping restore the state’s damaged ecosystems.

Bees at a thriving bee yard near Beckley, West Virginia.
Bees at a thriving bee yard near Beckley, West Virginia. (VOA/ Julie Taboh)

 She feels deeply protective of the honeybees.

From bulldozers to bees

The Appalachian region has been an “extraction” site for the country and for the world, Giles explains. “Unfortunately, in the past, they came here and extracted salt, they extracted timber; they extracted coal, now they’re extracting natural gas. So always throughout this region, this band of wealth from extraction has always benefited someone else.”

Until now.

“So we have another source of income in this central Appalachia, and that is the nectar of the hardwood forests that surround us,” she explains. “No one can take that away. We can sell our honey outside of the state and the money comes back into the pockets of the people in Appalachia, helping the region.”

Band of gold

Beekeeping is a local tradition. The Appalachian Beekeeping Collective hopes that its program will help more West Virginians connect to their roots, and come to appreciate the honeybees for the unique product they produce and the economic opportunities they provide.

Giles believes West Virginia honey will eventually become an agricultural staple.

“I look here and I see what used to be a thriving railroad community, even in the ‘70s when I was growing up, has turned into a community with not a lot of options. This beekeeping collective that we are sponsoring is giving people options, but better yet, it’s giving people hope for the future.”