HERNSHAW, AP) — Up a tree-lined trail still marked “no blastin on Sundays,” swarms of bees now patrol a mountain once partially broken apart for coal.
It’s been 15 years since the severed W.Va. mountainside produced any of the fossil fuel. Pritchard Mining Company has filled the adjacent valley with broken-off rocks, re-sloped the mountain and planted new trees and flora.
“Mining for honey” is the new extractive business here, one with no impact on the land. Behind two security gates, seven small hive boxes are surrounded by a short electric wire fence, which helps fend off hungry adversaries of honey producers.
“Our biggest threat is that bear,” Wade Stiltner, state Department of Agriculture apiary inspector, said earlier this month before flipping on the voltage.
In Appalachia, beekeepers say reclaimed surface mines make a lot of sense for the trade.
The controversial mining method often involves scraping off sides of mountains or literally blowing off their peaks for coal, and filling nearby valleys and streams with the remnants.
Environmental groups decry the footprint left on the land and polluting and health impact possibilities of what’s being dumped. Several also say repurposing the land gives the industry a free pass to divert attention away from the harm being done.
“It’s a creative use for wasteland,” said Vivian Stockman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. “Of course, I don’t know if it can match the scale of the destruction we have. That would be a lot of beehives.”
But for bees, which fly about 2 miles in any direction from their hives, the result sounds pretty good: expansive areas that coal companies restored, replanted and relined. They can grow young flowering plants and trees across hundreds of continuous square acres, all at once.
“The stuff we plant in reclamation and restoration, the beekeepers love it,” said Bill Raney, West Virginia Coal Association president.
Since April, West Virginia has test-run its tiny beekeeping operation on one former surface mine. The first year yielded more than 400 pounds of honey, which exceeded expectations and was an easy sell. Kentucky provided a formula to follow. The Coal Country Beeworks program, which started in 2008 and uses various coal company partnerships and grants, includes 35 bee boxes at five mine sites and research with Eastern Kentucky University. A transition in leadership, not to mention skunks, bears and a bad winter, cut the hives down from about 80.
“We don’t have to teach appreciation for bees. Many people already have it,” said Tammy Horn, Kentucky state apiarist and former head of Coal Country Beeworks. “And we have unique varietals, which make our honey quite unique.”
Next, West Virginia wants to introduce beekeeping training for veterans and out-of-work coal miners, install hives at other mines and provide honey from the initiative in schools.
Stiltner, a former underground miner himself, said there’s no specific testing of the honey from strip mines, as some environmentalists are urging. But he said nothing is getting into the nectar of the plants, and pesticides aren’t being used.
Dwindling honeybee populations need any boost they can get.
Due to habitat loss and pesticide use, commercial honeybees and their wild cousins have declined for more than a decade, threatening agricultural production. The sudden disappearance or death of honeybees, called colony collapse disorder, has exacerbated the problem. Winter losses have grown to up to 30 percent per year. Mites are also cited as part of the problem.
In February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a $3 million program to help dairy farmers and ranchers in five Midwestern states reseed pastures with plants appealing to both bees and livestock. The problem was also pressing enough that President Barack Obama formed a pollinator task force in June.
In the two Appalachian states dabbling most in mine beekeeping, there’s no shortage of usable sites. Of course, bees don’t take up much space. The fenced-off site in West Virginia is less than 500 square feet, and another nine hives could fit there.
The Associated Press reported in 2010 that more than 345,700 acres had been approved for post-mining uses in eastern Kentucky; only about 1.8 percent was used for commercial, industrial or residential development. Those figures dated to 1999.
In West Virginia, covering about 84,800 acres of 218 mining permits awarded since 2001, only 7 percent was designated for industrial/commercial, public service or residential use.
Federal law requires restoring surface mines to pre-mining conditions. A provision allows exemptions for “higher or better uses,” often used for development projects. Golf courses, an airport, a prison, subdivisions and businesses have been constructed on reclaimed mine sites, though most are used for habitat, forest or pasture lands.