High in a mountaintop pasture that hugs the Summers-Monroe border, everything seems right.

Birds alive with action and purpose sing and dart through a spring blue sky highlighted with puffs of pure white cumulus clouds.

Those birds dive for insects that seem undaunted and only sing their own songs louder and louder until it all becomes one drone.

In the shade of an old plank barn, a cow whose belly is swelled by a late-season calf waits for her own body to explode with life as her surroundings have done in recent weeks.

It is early spring, a time of wishful mirages in the mountains.

Looking out as far as the eye can see, you wonder if it is all true. If it is possible that what you see is real.

Just weeks ago, the mountains were nothing but geologic walls, only shapes in tones of gray and brown.

Now they are alive and vibrant, seemingly moving in their tones of yellows and greens and alive as only they can be.

Tucked away in the corner of the pasture there is activity and a vibrancy that only the mountains themselves could match and hush to silence.

Rows of boxes stacked neatly and beekeepers dressed for business, hard at work surrounded by a hazy cloud of action.

If you look and listen closely, the cloud is a buzz of action and sound which somewhere deep in your brain sparks something in the human instinct which is fearful but interested.

Thousands of bees hard at work in a forest of millions of trees among hundreds of ridges and valleys all for one purpose.

A new age-old practice

Last year, with private donations and POWER initiative funds from the Appalachian Regional Commission, a Lewisburg-based nonprofit named Appalachian Headwaters started the Appalachian Beekeepers Collective.

That collective is one-third of Appalachian Headwaters' plan to improve the ecology and economy of central Appalachia at the same time.

The nonprofit hired on experts and operational folks early last year, and its mission fully got under way in the fall of 2017.

It was then that the collective invited outside participants to five-week classes in beekeeping, ranging from total newcomers to those with some beekeeping experience.

Out of those classes, the collective asked for applications to fill 30 positions within its program that began this spring.

The 30 who were selected, ranging from single mothers to laid-off coal miners, have begun to receive a total of 200 hives that the full-time staff with Appalachian Headwaters had raised in bee yards spread out over five counties of southern West Virginia.

At the end of the summer, the 30 participants will bring their hives to the collective's headquarters to be harvested, at which point they will receive pay based on the total weight of honey harvested from the hives they tended.

"We have people that have never touched a bee or been in a bee program, brand new beekeepers," said Terri Giles, with Appalachian Headwaters. "Even experienced beekeepers, we mentor them through this process."

While offering an end-of-season paycheck for the participants, Giles said that this project will expand and that she believes it will make a real economic difference.

While paying the participants above market price, the plan is for the collective to turn around and sell the honey at a premium price to markets in places like Washington, D.C., New York and possibly even overseas.

The collective will use the profits gained to expand the collective year after year with more beekeepers in more counties.

"Hopefully, if we're successful, there will be no end in sight," Giles said. "People will keep growing this."

With a growth in honey, Giles said other industries can grow.

The collective has already hired West Virginia businesses to help reconstruct Camp Lightfoot, a summer camp on the Greenbrier River that was once owned by Eastern Coal, as the collective's headquarters and central hub.

That business benefit has extended all the way to Huntington as the collective has contracted out the construction of bee boxes to the Coalfield Development Corporation, another nonprofit looking to help rebuild the state's economy.

"There's so many things we can do with this honey," Giles said before adding that their Camp Lightfoot facility will be used to host tours, seminars and retreats for those interested and involved in beekeeping, science and reclamation.

It's in the mountains

According to Giles, what sets apart the honey that will come from the collective from other competitors is the surroundings in which the collective has set up its apiaries.

"We're in this ancient deciduous forest," Giles said. "The largest in the world. Which means we have a lot of things for bees to eat."

Along with the leaf-shedding forest that covers most of the state, what agriculture is ongoing in the Mountain State is generally limited to small-scale, organic types of crop production and livestock rearing.

"We don't have these big growing operations and spraying operations," Giles said.

Pesticide use and climate change have been some of the reasons thrown around trying to explain bee colony die-offs in the recent past.

Though those die-offs have turned around, any threat to bee colonies cannot be understated.

According to the nonprofit Ecology Center, cross-pollination from bees helps 30 percent of the world's food crops and 90 percent of its wild plants grow.

In the United States, that work by bees pollinates $15 billion in crops including apples, berries, cantaloupes, cucumbers, alfalfa and almonds.

While lending a helping hand, bees themselves are a profitable endeavor.

According to the Ecology Center, bees produce $150 million in honey every year.

While humans get to live off the sweetness of their work, producing honey is no easy task for the worker bee.

An average worker bee produces only one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime, meaning that it takes approximately 768 bees flying over 55,000 miles and visiting 2 million flowers to produce one pound of honey.

For Giles, the natural forage available to the bees of the Appalachian Bee Collective is what sets its honey apart from the rest.

The collective has installed apiaries at a variety of locations close to blackberry and raspberry patches, locust trees and other abundant natural plant areas.

While each apiary may be in a different location, they all share a few things in common: Absolutely no pesticides will be used, no antibiotics will be used and the honey will be extracted without heating.

According to Giles, those guidelines will lead to a superior product that is 100 percent natural and totally organic for consumption and other uses.

Creating a community

For Mark Lilly, that naturalness of the honey in the key.

"I personally don't want to treat my bees. I have bees outside the program. I don't want to put synthetic chemicals in there," Lilly said. "I don't want to eat the honey that has synthetic chemicals applied to it because I don't believe it's healthy for us."

Lilly was one of the beekeepers working the boxes at the hilltop pasture.

"Pretty much when the weather is nice we are at a bee yard looking for any problem," Lilly said, brow covered in sweat from the heat inside his recently removed beekeeper's suit. "We want to make sure that each colony has a queen, there's no health issues and they have enough space."

Lilly, a master beekeeper from Raleigh County, is one of the permanent employees brought on by Appalachian Headwaters last year and believes the collective idea will be great for those who have volunteered for the program.

"A lot of folks will be able to add a couple thousand dollars a year to their income with something they may only have to work at five or six hours a week," Lilly said.

Lilly also sees the benefit of the program on educating the region's children on sustaining a good environment.

"This is more sustainable," the master beekeeper said. "You don't have to worry about poisoning the environment."

That sustainability is the main reason Lilly believes that the state should embrace efforts like the collective's.

The southern West Virginian grew up during some of the heights of the extraction energy in the state but believes sustainable measures like beekeeping are the way forward.

"I think that's where the state needs to head," Lilly said. "We can't live in the past. It was great, provided a great income for families, but it left its mark on the environment and this is something that will improve the environment."

Lilly believes in a diversity of options in the state as a way to rebound economically.

"I think we're going to see a lot of it in our state," he said. "The small sustainable industries of different kinds."

Lilly is such a believer, he left his job of over 30 years as an insurance adjuster to sign on with Appalachian Headwaters.

"I quit a steady job of 30 years and a company car to come over to this just because of the idea," Lilly said, standing in the hilltop pasture looking over the collective's bee boxes and out over the mountains.

No end in sight

With the program beginning to take off in southeastern West Virginia, Giles said there are plans to open a second processing plant farther west in the coalfields, perhaps in Boone or Logan County.

"We will be the largest natural bee company in the country by the time we're done," Giles said, adding later that the goal is to one day be the largest in the world. 

While looking for a great profit margin, the collective will turn around and use those profits for job creation and environmental repair.

"Our motto is sustainable jobs, sustainable environment," Giles said.

With expansion, the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective will be looking for new volunteers to be added to those already involved in the program, most likely in the fall.

While Giles said the collective likes to target those most economically and socially disadvantaged, the program is open to all who can learn a passion for beekeeping.

"There really isn't a requirement other than be serious, be gentle," said Giles.

The Appalachian Beekeepers Collective will host a public kick-off event beginning at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, June 16, at its Camp Lightfoot location. Music, food and beverages will be available.

Email: mcombs@register-herald.com; follow on Twitter @mattcombsRH

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