Oh, honey. This ultra-sweet concoction is nature’s candy, a product of hardworking bees. It can be controversial among plant-based eaters, but the reality is we can enjoy this natural sweetener if we learn to live in harmony with the bees. Unfortunately, bees are in trouble. Bee hives have decreased about 60% since the 1940s, and these important pollinators are only facing more crises as the planet heats up. Organizations like Appalachian Beekeeping Collective are here to help.
Appalachian Beekeeping Collective (ABC) is a nonprofit organization that helps sustainably support partner beekeepers in lower-income communities. ABC provides beekeepers with training and equipment plus mentors to help them along the way. The organization then extracts, packages, markets, and sells honey on behalf of the beekeepers to help them earn income without diverting their focus from sustainably caring for the bees. The final product is far superior to any honey you’d find at the grocery store, too. The Appalachian Beekeeping Collective honey is sweet and floral and pairs well with just about any dish you could think of. ABC’s program is solar-powered, and the organization’s facility generates 66,667 kWh of electricity yearly.
Although the human workers at ABC are busy bees this time of year, they took a moment to provide an inside look at how the organization works. We spoke with Kevin Johnson, mentor and educator, as well as Raine Nimmer and Colleen Fitts, partner beekeepers, about their efforts at ABC.
Inhabitat: What is your role with the collective?
Johnson: I am a beekeeper mentor and educator. As an educator, I help teach beekeeping classes to the general public over the winter (virtual this year) and assist with field workshops and continuing ed opportunities at other times. As a beekeeper mentor, I help beekeepers in our program develop the skills to be successful, independent beekeepers.
Our partner beekeepers are from a wide variety of backgrounds, range in age from 12 to over 80, and keep their bees in diverse surroundings. All share a love of and fascination with bees. Partners have taken our Beekeeping 101 series and have agreed to follow ABC’s natural beekeeping best practices.
Nimmer and Fitts: We are called “partners” in the ABC program. After taking a five week introductory beekeeping course, we (Colleen and Raine) were given four hives each when we were first accepted into the program in 2019. We manage and maintain our ABC hives and work at keeping the colonies happy and healthy.
Inhabitat: What does a typical day look like for you?
Johnson: A typical day is long! If the weather is warm and dry enough, we will be working in bee yards from sunrise to sunset. Bees don’t follow human schedules, and so at certain times of year (spring buildup, swarm season, nectar flows) we have to assist as many partners as we can in the window that weather provides. After dark, we often are answering calls and texts, getting our movements coordinated, and getting loaded and ready for the next day.
Part of mentoring new beekeepers is taking the extra time to coach them through the manipulations and observations necessary to be a responsive, skilled, confident beekeeper.
Nimmer and Fitts: A typical day of a hive inspection begins with a warm sunny day and little chance of rain. We gather hive boxes, frames and other equipment to bring out to the hives. We prepare our smoker with fuel. Once at our apiary, we both choose a hive and our inspections begin. Depending on the time of year, we are interested in certain things during an inspection, such as assessing the health of the bees, looking for any signs of disease or pests, confirming that there is a laying queen present, looking for signs of impending swarm behavior, and determining if the hive has enough space to grow. We generally only harvest honey once per year and try to be sure that we leave the bees with enough of their own honey to thrive through the winter.
Inhabitat: What do you enjoy most about this work?
Johnson: I enjoy the moments where beekeepers realize they’ve been taught something by their own bees. Like “Wow! They are collecting a different color pollen now” or “They are raising a new queen!” I also enjoy the process of the beekeepers honing their detective skills — noticing evidence of pests and diseases, or of changes in the brood cycle — and then looking more closely for clues to how to support their bees. There is never a lack of new things to learn from or respond to.
I also enjoy the connection with people around bees because it naturally pulls in their hopes and dreams. Some want to see their gardens grow better, others want to build a hive products business, others still want to teach their children and grandchildren about the connectedness of the environment through their beekeeping. It all comes from a love of place.
Nimmer and Fitts: Inspecting hives is our favorite part of our role. It seems that every time we go in we experience something that amazes us. It is a calming and grounding experience that reminds us of our place in creation. Seeing something especially magical is also fun, such as the first time we heard a queen “piping”, the time we caught a queen bee as she was “birthed” from her cell or tasting royal jelly for the first time.
Inhabitat: How did you get into the beekeeping business?
Nimmer and Fitts: I (Colleen) have long found the concept of beekeeping very appealing, especially knowing that my dad had kept bees in his younger years. Around 2005, I took a day-long workshop on beekeeping and was hooked. After I moved to Bethlehem Farm, I learned that neighbors down the road were beekeepers and were willing to help teach the craft. These neighbors, Anne and Mark, came over and helped me and former caretaker Brian work the hives and learn to care for bees. Ten years later, we had a tough winter and lost all our hives. It was at that point that we started looking around for locally raised bee hives to start over, and we found ABC. The mentorship and resources available through being an ABC partner are an amazing opportunity to learn, to expand our skills and to improve our stewardship of creation.
Inhabitat: What projects/tasks that you’ve been involved in for this role have made you the most proud or excited?
Johnson: Making splits with a beekeeper for the first time is exciting, after bringing that hive successfully through the winter. Also, harvesting honey with a beekeeper for the first time. Catching swarms is always exciting, and a different skill.
Inhabitat: Can you speak to the sustainability of the program?
Nimmer and Fitts: Like many other crafts, there are innumerable methods and philosophies of beekeeping. When we joined ABC, we were happy to agree to work within their system, which includes refraining from using certain chemicals and harsh antibiotics in the hives. ABC tries to teach a system of beekeeping that considers the way bees operate in their natural environment and considers the long-term health of honeybees in general, rather than settling for short-term gains.
ABC experts are working to breed queens that are well-suited to West Virginia’s climate so that the bees in Appalachia can be stronger and more resilient. We know that without pollinators like honeybees, we will have no fruits or vegetables to nourish us. And we know that without healthy employment for West Virginians, we will not have healthy families. ABC is working to strengthen the ecosystem with honeybees and the West Virginia economy with creative employment options as a beekeeper. We are happy to be a part of it.
Inhabitat: Have you seen growing interest in those wanting to join the collective over the course of the pandemic?
Johnson: We saw a tremendous increase in participation in our Beekeeping 101 classes (over typical in-person classes) when we moved them online this winter, many from beyond our region. Even if some of those participants decide not to keep bees this year, they may in the future, and what they do certainly impacts bees — from how they manage their land to how they get around to what they eat. Pesticide use and climate change are tremendous challenges for honeybees, along with all other pollinators. One of the things I always say in class is that everyone is a beekeeper, because every one of us has an impact on our bees.
Inhabitat: How does the collective inspire local community members to get involved?
Johnson: I believe we inspire local community members by engaging them in their home communities in a person-to-person, regionally relevant way, that speaks to their goals and love of place. Folks want to support efforts like ours even if they wouldn’t ever imagine getting near a bee hive.
Inhabitat: How has this organization made an impact on both the environment and the people in the community?
Johnson: I believe we have developed a broader awareness of how we are connected to our environment through our beekeeping program. Our partners commit to following our natural beekeeping protocol (no synthetic chemicals in the hive, no pesticides); unprompted by us, I know partners have talked to their neighbors and friends about changing their behaviors to benefit the bees, from mowing less to planting wildflowers to not spraying. It’s not hard to come across news about environmental problems these days. I believe bees are a way of centering those problems right where we live, and right where our hearts are (in our bees, and in our mountains, that is).
Nimmer and Fitts: Honeybees are pollinators so they may be pollinating our neighbors’ gardens and flowers. Honeybees also need people to advocate for them. Conversations about bees with our community members will hopefully spread more awareness of the challenges bees face and spread interest and excitement in either beekeeping themselves or, at the very least, lead a life that doesn’t harm bees. Our household doesn’t mind eating the honey, either!
Inhabitat: Any last thoughts?
Nimmer and Fitts: We feel that keeping bees is an honor and a powerful experience of connection with creation. We encourage anyone interested to find a beekeeper and learn as much as you can! We have a lot to learn from bees and their system of working together harmoniously with a sweet result.
Images via Appalachian Beekeeping Collective and Paige Bennett