Thursday, December 10, 2009
In Appalachia, a Researcher Makes Honey From Coal
Eastern Kentucky U.'s Tammy Horn explains the behavior of bees, which she hopes could transform Appalachia.
By Karin Fischer
The library at the Lotts Creek Community School is buzzing with excitement as a half-dozen grade schoolers struggle into full-body protective "wee bee" suits. As they labor with zippers and wrestle with veils, a visitor lowers herself into a pint-size chair in their midst.
"My name is Tammy Horn," she says, "but you can just call me the Bee Lady."
For the next hour and a half, Ms. Horn, an English professor turned apiarist, fields a rat-a-tat-tat of questions: "Are there really killer bees?" ("They're African honeybees, and they're more aggressive because they have lots of natural predators.") "Where are the bees in your hive?" ("You can't bring bees to school.") "What happens if a bee gets in my suit?" ("Kill it before it stings you!")
One of the most voluble questioners is Latiefa, a slender fifth grader who sheds her bee suit to reveal an oversize T-shirt with the slogan, "Coal mining for our future. We support Kentucky coal."
But Ms. Horn, a native of the state who returned after earning a doctorate from the University of Alabama, has a bolder and more complex vision for the region's future, one in which mining, long the economic mainstay in this impoverished area, plays a crucial supporting role.
Her vision is to create nothing less than an Appalachian "honey corridor" in eastern Kentucky and neighboring West Virginia, starting with more than 33,000 surface-mined acres, which could be reforested in a way that sets up a bee industry. She envisions training hundreds of local residents in beekeeping, a once-common avocation for their parents and grandparents. In addition to jarring honey and producing beeswax for cosmetics and other uses, beekeepers could offer queen-rearing and pollination services, she says, breeding an Appalachian strain of honeybee resistant to disorders that threaten to wipe out the insect's population.
Nearby colleges, like Eastern Kentucky University, where Ms. Horn is a senior researcher, could provide assistance and conduct critical scientific research. By drawing on a pursuit once elemental to their heritage, she says, Appalachian residents could reshape their land and their economy.
"It's not just someone sitting on the side of the road selling honey out of Mason jars," she says.
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.
Hives on the slopes
On an early-autumn morning, Ms. Horn sets out to visit one of the bee yards—rendered as "bayards" in her unhurried cadence—on a section of a mine operated by International Coal Group, a 30-minute ride from Hazard. As she drives out of the hollow, clumps of fog wreathe the ridgeline, and the mountainsides are washed in muted greens and grays.
The mine site lies up a narrow, switchbacking road shared by coal-laden trucks, which seem to loom around each bend. Ms. Horn points out an older surface-mining site along the roadside; a portion of the mountain has been blasted away and laid bare for commercial reuse that never materialized.
By contrast, the reclaimed International Coal Group site appears more natural, its slopes treed with high-value hardwoods. The mining giant was one of the first companies Ms. Horn approached two years ago with her pitch: Alter your planting mix to include trees, shrubs, and flowers that pollinators prefer.
The signature tree for Appalachian beekeepers is the sourwood, a low-canopy native that blossoms late, putting out white, bell-shaped flowers near the Fourth of July, tiding bees over from spring to fall flowers. Purists value sourwood honey for its distinctive flavor, floral with a deep, almost burnt-butter aftertaste.
While sourwood's pollen is manna to bees, it is considered a trash tree by the timber industry. Because reclamation work has largely focused on planting commercial forests, sourwoods have rarely been seeded.
Still, Don Gibson, International Coal Group's director of permitting and regulatory affairs, says Ms. Horn's proposal was never a tough sell, even when she told him she belonged to a statewide environmental group that has been a biting critic of the mining industry. It costs little to plant bee-friendly trees and wildflowers, he says, and the benefits are outsized.
"People wouldn't drive five miles to see a reclaimed surface-mine site, but they'll come 1,000 miles to see a bee yard," he says. Over the last two years, more than 250 people have toured the three International Coal sites that house the bee project, giving the company the opportunity to talk to visitors about modern-day mining and reclamation methods. "If the region can see the economic promise going forward," Mr. Gibson says, "it will be a win for everyone involved."
For her part, Ms. Horn says she tries to keep the focus off politics and on the bees. Driving up the gravel path she has dubbed Bee Boulevard, she unlocks the gate to the small fenced-in bee yard and its cluster of nine squat hives, which resemble chests of drawers.
She busies herself lighting wood chips in a handheld smoker, pumping the bellows to swathe her body in fumes that cancel out the aromas of shampoo and detergent, which could alert the bees to her presence. Then she puffs ribbons of smoke along the bottoms of the hives, which prompts the bees to eat more honey and, hopefully, become more docile. She learned the technique from a South African apiarist, one of the subjects of her next book, a global history of women and beekeeping. (Her first book, Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation, was published in 2005 by the University Press of Kentucky, and she is already planning a third volume, a study of bees and the trees they pollinate.)
Ms. Horn's first beekeeping mentor was her late grandfather, Ted Hacker. She was 29 and a newly minted Ph.D. when she was passed over for a tenure-track teaching position. Wounded, she retreated to her grandparents' farm in eastern Kentucky. The progress of Parkinson's disease meant that her grandfather was no longer able to negotiate beekeeping's careful rituals, and he turned to Ms. Horn for assistance, although she admits she "didn't know a honeybee from a yellow jacket."
Opening a hive for the first time was an epiphany. Instead of a rush of honeybees, she recalls, two or three bees floated up out of the hive and landed on her veil. "They were as curious about me as I was about them," she says, almost dreamily.
Back at the mine site, Ms. Horn expertly pries off the top of the first of the hives. She painstakingly works apart the frames, sticky with honey and resin, and lifts one up. The bullet-shaped drones dully buzz about as Ms. Horn examines the honeycombed frame, nearly solid with eggs, a new brood. In the distance, a blast at the still-active mine site sounds like a muffled thunderclap.
Quickly, she slides a small square of cardboard, treated with sharply scented thyme oil, between the frames. The essential oil accelerates the bees' instinctive grooming, getting rid of potentially deadly Varroa mites in preparation for the winter ahead.
As soon as she started helping her grandfather with bees, Ms. Horn wanted to abandon academics for an apiarist's life. "By then I had enough of academe to wonder if I was cut out for it," she says. "There are always going to be people wanting to teach Shakespeare. There are not always going to be people who want to do this work."
But her grandfather persuaded her to stick with her scholarly career, even if it meant eking out annual teaching contracts, until she could formulate a solid plan. It took a decade, during which Ms. Horn taught English literature and general-education courses at Eastern Kentucky and the University of West Alabama and was the National Endowment for the Humanities Chair in Appalachian Studies at Berea College. In her off hours, she delved into the history of beekeeping and explored how reclamation law in the United States and elsewhere could be used to sustain a more diverse agricultural landscape. When a retiring beekeeper offered her $36,000 in financing, she was ready to start Coal Country Beeworks.
It has been a scramble. Her position at Eastern Kentucky's Environmental Research Institute is primarily supported by grants. Her "frantic" proposal writing has yielded some success, such as a project with NASA to measure whether global temperature changes are affecting the blooming cycles of regional foliage. Economic officials in neighboring West Virginia have shown interest in starting beekeeping on mine sites as a development effort in that state, and Ms. Horn has been in talks with a local biosciences company about pollination research.
Still, the bee project largely remains a one-woman show. Ms. Horn's SUV is chockablock with bee suits, extra hive frames, and the occasional fast-food coffee cup, and she spends several days a week traveling the state to meet with business leaders, talk to community and school groups, and care for the hives. "Once the temperature drops below 55 degrees" and the bees winter over, she says, "I get a social life again."
In fact, the honeybees have been a boon to Ms. Horn's romantic life—after a front-page article on her work appeared in the Lexington Herald-Leader, her high-school sweetheart looked her up. The two are now dating.