Project Turns Former Coal Strip Mines into Fertile Honey Farms

honey bees on comb

Photo via Don Hankins via Flickr CC

Appalachian mountains have been - and are being - ravaged for their coal, including the use of intensely destructive practices as strip mining. But there could be hope for areas previously used for strip mining. Enter the honey bee...and Tammy Horn, who wants to turn eastern Kentucky and neighboring West Virginia into a "honey corridor." According to a recent study, illness and premature death in coal mining regions far outweigh any economic benefits of coal mining, costing anywhere from $9 billion to $76 billion more per year than it brings in. On the flip side, the humble honey bee has countless positive health and environmental benefits, on top of being the key component in a booming business for agriculture.

Tammy Horn sees the potential for reforesting mined areas and teaching locals how to become bee keepers, transforming the torn landscape into a thriving ecosystem once again while providing a new component to the local economy.

strip mine photo

This strip mine near Globe, Arizona in1990 gives a clear idea about how much reforrestation could mean to a coal country ecosystem. Photo via PhillipC via Flickr CC

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports, "One day, Ms. Horn hopes some 25,000 hives could be supported on former strip mines. Under federal law, such lands must be returned to their prior condition or reclaimed for "better and higher uses." In its initial phase, her project, Coal Country Beeworks, has 53 hives on five sites."

The Coal Country Beeworks project has an excellent goal: "Coal companies have created over 33,000 acres of reclaimed land. Within these isolated areas, we can produce bees that are better acclimated to the region and, in effect, create "genetic islands" of bee colonies that will aid in preserving biodiversity of bees and plants in North America."

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Horn, who is part of the Environmental Research Institute, states, "In addition to honey production, we are interested in exploring the potential for value-added cottage industries such as candles, lotions, and soaps. Even if these are not full-scale cottage industries, the U.S. needs as much beeswax as possible. The U.S. does not produce as much beeswax as needed for our cosmetics industry. Another side industry is queen rearing, which is requires more advanced beekeeping skills, and that is a long-term goal of this project. A third, less visible "product" is pollination, and as Kentucky moves toward a diversified agricultural landscape, pollination services will become more necessary.

Part of the effort revolves around choice of plants for reviving the area. The native sourwood is the best tree for beekeepers, however it's considered a "trash tree" by the timber industry which also wants to turn pieces of former strip mines into commercial forests. Thankfully, Don Gibson, International Coal Group's director of permitting and regulatory affairs, says he'd rather see sourwood trees and a whole lot of bees and wildflowers, since the thriving ecosystem would be such a major economic boon to the area.

So, with the help of the honey bee, and one incredibly dedicated researcher in Tammy Horn, there's hope for a strong recovery for areas where strip mining harmed the landscape. And considering coal mining in Appalachia is expected to be on the decline, having a new, healthy way to make money in coal country will be more important than ever.

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