West Virginia Beekeepers Say Their Tradition Is About More Than The Honey
It seems that beekeepers in West Virginia have as much to learn from honeybees as they do each other. Beekeepers in the state are getting much more than honey; they are gaining knowledge and insights from their close-knit community.
In Summers County, West Virginia, Mark Lilly grew up watching his grandfather and relatives keep bees. Today, Lilly works as a master beekeeper for the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective, a non-profit that helps train beekeepers in economically depressed regions in West Virginia and Virginia. On a recent sunny day, Lilly showed me his honeybee hives. Against the backdrop of the steady hum of busy bees, he lifted the box of a hive to check his swarm’s honey production.
“This colony is doing real well building up for the spring. We're probably three weeks plus before the flow would hit,” Lilly said.
The flow Mark was referring to is the honey. Honey from West Virginia is often tree honey. Bees collect nectar from flowering trees such as black locust and tulip poplar.
“I think we could probably prove that the Appalachian area provides world class honey,” he said.
Lilly is in his sixties and grew up in Raleigh County. He’s been keeping bees for over 25 years. Recently, there has been an increase in new beekeepers in West Virginia. According to Shanda King, the State Apiarist, beekeeping is on the rise, as is the number of colonies per beekeeper.
Sara Ann Mclannahan of Charleston is one of them. “Getting into my hives the first time…they always say that they can smell fear. No, I was too excited for that,” Mclannahan said.
She recently took over her aunt’s hives. After lifting the top off one of the hives, we saw an army of bees gathering on the top edge of the hive. She pumped a smoker to calm the agitated bees. “We are going to force these guys to go down,” she said. The bees became listless as we inspected the hive.
Mclannahan had a lot of help learning to keep bees. She has a co-worker who has hives, and he’s become her mentor. Mark Lilly also had a mentor early on. His grandfather was big into bees. He kept bees in hollowed-out logs. He usually used gum trees which decayed from the inside out, making them perfect for honeybee hives.
“When my grandfather was doing it, it was a section of a log with a piece of wood or tin on top of it, and comb in there, and he would just take a big aluminum dishpan and a bread knife and cut out the top which is where the honey was stored,” Lilly said.
Lilly’s grandfather kept bees for the honey. It brought the family together when he’d plunk the aluminum pan with honeycomb on the center of the table beside fresh biscuits. But beekeepers in West Virginia today are getting into beekeeping for more than the honey. And Lilly should know. As the master beekeeper for the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective, he teaches free classes via Zoom to new beekeepers. That includes teaching how beekeepers today keep their swarms.
In his beekeeping 101 classes, Lilly covers everything from equipment to potential problems with swarms—things have changed since his grandfather’s day. “Generally, beekeepers around the world use a Langstroth Hive. It’s universal so it’s easy to get equipment. They have to have movable frames to be inspected. To check for disease you have to be able to pull the frames out,” he said.
While Lilly absorbed a lot about beekeeping by watching his grandfather, he discovered much of what he learned through his own research and by attending statewide conferences. He’s now part of a tight knit network of beekeepers around the state. And so is Mclannahan. She’s connected with beekeepers around the state through social media.
“Facebook groups have been amazing. I have learned a lot about bees by going to the Women Beekeepers retreat in July,” said Mclannahan. The retreat she attends each summer is hosted by Phyllis Varian who founded the Women Beekeepers of West Virginia.
Varian noticed beekeeping in West Virginia was male dominated. She started the retreat to give women hands-on experience with bees. She also created a Facebook page that the women use to get help with their beekeeping quandaries. Mclannahan is a big fan of the group.
“Some people have questions, and I'm just like, ‘Oh, wow, that's really cool. Let's see what everybody says.’” Mclannahan has bonded with people from all walks of life through beekeeping. And the same is true for Lilly in his work with the collective.
“The beautiful part of the collective is it’s a great cross section of society. We've got young teens, all the way up to more senior citizens, different ethnic backgrounds. I'd be comfortable in saying at least 50 percent of the collective members are ladies,” Lilly said.
This diverse group of beekeepers, they tend to share their knowledge. “We all can gain something from hearing about other people's successes and their mistakes. We can learn from that, too,” Lilly said.
For both Mclannahan and Lilly, sharing their beekeeping knowledge also means teaching the next generation. Mclannahan spends time in the bee yard with her nine-year-old son. His favorite part of the process? Enjoying the honey.
“My son is a peanut butter and honey sandwich eater every day. He eats probably a jar a month, and I can't hardly keep it in stock,” Mclannahan said. And Lilly spends evenings working the bees with his kids and grandkids. He hopes they will share his admiration for the bees and the way they work together.
“Something as simple as insects and a box—that’s what we can learn and what we can teach others,” he said. “They're working to improve their society—this hive is their community. And they all want to see it prosper. And that's for the community or the hive, to be healthy, to produce everything it needs, food wise, to protect each other. I think we can all learn to get along like honeybees.”
This story originally aired in the Aug. 5, 2022 episode of Inside Appalachia.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, which is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation.
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