Dr. Tammy Horn checks on the bees at Berea College’s bee farm. Horn is working with Eastern’s Environmental Research Institute to reclaim strip-mined land by planting “bee-friendly” trees and shrubs. (Chris Radcliffe)

By Steve Thomas

Taking a page out of Appalachian history, Dr. Tammy Horn is teaming up with Eastern to bring a once-dominant industry back to rural Kentucky. Horn has been introducing honeybee colonies into reclaimed strip-mined land in a joint operation with Eastern’s Environmental Research Institute and several coal companies. She believes that the honeybee can change the landscape of Eastern Kentucky in drastic ways – both economically and environmentally.

The goal of the project, which began in May of 2008, is to diversify the ecology of the strip-mined sites as well as revive a dwindling beekeeping industry in Eastern Kentucky.

Dr. Alice Jones, director of the Environmental Research Institute at Eastern, said that the bee yards can be used as an economic stimulus for communities that have suffered from the mountaintop removal industry.

“It connects citizens to the region,” Jones said. “The business is specific to the region and its tradition in Appalachia.”

Jones also said that in addition to the honey produced, there is a market for products yielded from beeswax. These products include candles, lotions, creams and other cosmetics.

“This project seeks to nurture rural economic development as soon as possible,” Jones said.

Horn said she is also hoping to change the way mine reclamation is done in the United States.

According to Horn, until 2008 the primary value of reclamation projects had been the planting and harvesting of high-value hardwood trees, which can take decades to yield dividends.

Jones and Horn agreed that planting native, “bee-friendly” trees and shrubs (ones that produce high amounts of pollen and nectar) is an integral part of seeing both immediate and long-term success.

“One of the goals of the project is to simultaneously restore the ecological function of mined land by restoring the forest – a diverse forest,” Jones said.

Jones also said the project pushes coal companies to do reclamation that creates a replacement forest.

“The companies themselves are an important part of the partnership,” Jones said. “If this project is successful, and it has been, other companies will want to be involved as well.”

Horn agreed and said regional coal companies from other states have begun to show interest in the program as well.

“This has really snowballed,” Horn said. “The enthusiasm is contagious.”

Though the program began with a single coal company and three mine sites, Horn said it has expanded to include four coal companies and currently has four sites with several others in development.

The program began with 30 company-sponsored hives in May and has expanded to 40. According to Horn, that’s a growth of approximately 200,000 additional bees.

Jones said there is potential for an additional eight to 10 hives by the end of this year.

The final aspect of the project is Eastern, which both Jones and Horn said has been very accommodating.

“It’s been a win-win-win situation (for the companies, community, and university),” Jones said. “And you get honey. And who doesn’t like honey?