Far from being a land that most West Virginians want to escape, Appalachia is a nurturing community and a celebration of life, if people look in the right place.
Appalachian Headwaters’ honey-making operation in Summers County is one of the places to look. This arm of the non-profit environmental organization is nestled among the mountains of Summers County. Inside its gates, the best of West Virginia is drawn together – friendliness, generosity, neighborly love and a connection to nature.
Appalachian Headwaters focuses on environmental restoration and economic recovery. The non-profit operation heals the used and discarded land once it has been mined, by reclaiming it with native plants. The group also has a pollinator program and hosts environmental-themed summer camps for kids.
In 2016, the group established the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective, a non-profit beekeeping program that now partners with 105 trained beekeepers who host and keep the bees on their own property.
Since that summer, ABC’s mentor beekeepers have trained “partners” in southern and central West Virginia and in Virginia to keep the honeybees, and Appalachian Headwaters provided partner beekeepers with Langstroth hives – a 10-frame hive with frames where the honeybees make their waxy combs and deposit their honey.
The removable frames allow the keepers to take out the honey without destroying the comb.
Some of the beekeepers are earning money to replace the gap left by the downturn of the coal mining industry. ABC protects Appalachians’ economic pursuits, in their natural environment.
ABC partners are proving that West Virginians are not just adept at going into the earth to care for themselves and their families but that they are able to rely on reclaimed and untouched nature for their living.
In fact, Terri Giles, vice president for government relations of Appalachian Headwaters, believes that native Appalachians have an innate connection to the lush nature around them.
“It’s part of the fabric in our heritage in Appalachia to be close to the land,” she said.“To understand bees is to understand the environment, and, once you are out there with them, you start noticing things you might not have noticed before.
“I think that’s an homage to our ancestors in West Virginia, being independent and being self-sufficient,” said Giles. “And this is a way to also keep where we want to be – in our home.
“We can’t build plants down in Wyoming County or McDowell County because we don’t have the land, but we can offer to the world this resource of our honey, that comes from the heart and hands of Appalachians.”
Doing their own part, the bees venture from the hives and into the natural biota, where they collect the nectar of West Virginia and Virginia: the trailing white flowers of the black locust tree, the heart-shaped blooms of the basswood (or linden) tree, the yellow buds of the tulip poplar and the North American sourwood tree, which isn’t native to any other continent but grows like wildfire in Appalachia.
Giles said that southern and central West Virginia and parts of nearby Virginia are “prime real estate for bees.”
“Mainly, because of all the deciduous forests we have through here that has been, pretty much, untouched, completely untouched, by chemicals or, really, farming,” said Giles. “We don’t farm that much, here.
“We basically have cows.”
The bees store the nectar in their bodies and bring it back to their hives, where they turn it into honey.
When the bees have filled the frames – the wooden, framed slats – inside their hives with honeycomb, and when the frames are dripping with golden honey, the beekeepers take the honeyed frames back to the beekeeping collective.
Appalachian Beekeeping Collective workers weigh the honey and pay their partners. Then, they taste the honey that the beekeepers have brought, in much the same way connoisseurs taste wine.
From the taste test, they decide on the tree species that the bees used to collect the nectar that made each batch.
Giles says that West Virginia honey ranks among the best on earth.
“We have pristine forest that creates completely pristine honey,” said Giles. “Because of the variety of nectar sources of the bees, (it) makes your honey very unique in the world.
“Not just the United States but in the world.”
Michael Beckner at ABC extracts the honey to put into barrels for bottling.
He takes the frames from the partners and freezes them for three days.
“If there’s anything in there, it’s killed,” said Beckner, adding that the process kills bugs. “All the bad stuff is killed.”
Once the special freezers are full, Beckner turns the freezers to “heat” mode, and the contraptions become heaters.
The frozen honey starts to liquify, but the heat is not enough to damage the comb.
“They’re basically room temperature, a little bit above,” he explained.
The comb is still inside the frame. A waxy film “caps” the honey and comb.
Beckner places the frame into a machine that “de-caps” the honey, or removes the film of wax.
Beckner scrapes off any “caps” the machine leaves on the frame. In the process, the comb itself may get a small dent.
“It’s not a big deal,” he noted.
Honey drips into a reservoir, and workers pour it into 55-gallon barrels, which filled a large part of the ABC warehouse.
The raw, kosher honey is poured into jars and labeled, according to the taste test: Appalachian Sourwood, Appalachian Bellwood, Appalachian Black Locust, Appalachian Tulip Poplar or, if it tastes like a mingling of nectars, just “Appalachian Honey.”
ABC also offers creamy honey and will soon offer salted honey, which is a treat of sweet and salty flavors, on the website.
Each jar of honey is sold for $13 to $16 on the website. A jar comes with a photo card that introduces a partner beekeeper, said Giles.
“If you want a gift that goes back to a community or gives back to efforts for the environment, go to abchoney.org and order some honey,” urged Giles. “First of all, it tastes great.
“It’s a terrific price,” she added. “You won’t find better honey, for a cheaper price, anywhere.
“Every bottle that you buy helps us plant trees in Appalachia, and it helps a lot of Appalachians have an income and be able to stay in their homes and places they love, that have been decimated by the coal industry, the downturn,” she added.
Visit www.abchoney.org for more information and to buy honey.