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Backyards into bee yards: A new path opens up in job-hungry coal country

Posted at 11:10 AM, Nov 09, 2021

HINTON, W.V. — There are people who feel forgotten, overlooked, and ignored. They invested in an industry thinking it would be around forever, only to see it go away.

“I love these mountains," said James Scyphers, a lifelong West Virginian. "There’s no other place I’d want to be."

Scyphers worked in the coal industry for years until jobs dried up. Randy Smith, a fellow lifelong West Virginian, spent decades in it.

“When I was in the Navy," Smith said, "I couldn’t wait to get back to West Virginia. I’ve been all over the world, and there’s no place like West Virginia.”

Scyphers and Smith know most people outside their state will likely never pass through it. But they preach for it. They fight for it, even through a few buzzy boxes.

Their backyards are bee yards. Both Scyphers and Smith produce hives of local honey.

“It’s just the most fascinating thing of anything I’ve ever fooled with," said Scyphers.

"It’s amazing how the queen is so dedicated to the beehive that she’ll create other queens, knowing that one of them will actually kill her," Smith said, "because she’s more concerned with the longevity of the hive.”

In West Virginia, one queen has reigned for decades over a hive that's drying. For so long in the Mountaineer State, coal attracted businesses. Businesses brought jobs. Jobs delivered steady incomes amidst stunning scenery.

“It’s home to me," Scyphers said, "but it’s just so run down now because most of the coal mines are gone now. And it’s not the people’s fault. It’s location and the economy."

Across the country, communities that thrived on one industry have been forced to change. Wisconsin is losing a dairy farm a day. The Carolinas used to hold so many jobs in textiles and clothing before machines took over. In West Virginia, coal mines employ a tenth of what they used to.

“I think it’s difficult for some to let go of the past," said Mark Lilly, who oversees the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective, or ABC. "To some extent, that’s all of us.”

The beekeeping collective has nothing to do with coal. But they can’t help but intersect. The ABC facility stands on an old summer camp for coal miners’ children. Their mission – training beekeepers to produce natural honey – is a new lane in a state that needs them.

“The drawbacks to those regions are how inaccessible they are by road and the terrain they’re located in," said Lilly, "but that’s what makes them so perfect for the opportunity of beekeeping. With 5-7 years of experience, it’ll be easy for someone to earn $20,000-30,000 a year, which might sound like a little bit, but if that’s more than your county’s average annual income, that’s big.”

Scyphers is retired now. So is Smith. Beekeeping, to them, is a hobby. For some, it may become a career. It will never remotely usurp coal. Maybe that’s OK. For so many in this state, leaving the place they love – the place that raised them – is not up for debate. The point is the fight to add to the pride they preach.

"Instead of complaining, ‘Oh, we’ve been dealt lemons,’" Lilly said, "we’ve got the world’s best lemonade. Let’s just take advantage of it.”