West Virginia’s Beekeeping Tradition Is Much More Than Honey

By MARGARET McLEOD LEEF, West Virginia Public Broadcasting

HINTON, W.Va. (AP) — It seems West Virginia beekeepers have as much to learn from bees as they do from each other. State beekeepers get more than just honey; they gain knowledge and ideas from their close-knit community.

In Summers County, West Virginia, Mark Lilly grew up watching his grandfather and his family raise bees. Today, Lilly works as a master beekeeper for the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective, a nonprofit organization that helps train beekeepers in economically disadvantaged areas of West Virginia and Virginia. On a recent sunny day, Lilly showed off her bee hives. Against the backdrop of the regular buzz of busy bees, he lifted the box of a hive to check his swarm’s honey production.

“This colony is doing very well to prepare for spring. We’re probably over three weeks away from the flow hitting,” Lilly said.

The flux Lilly was referring to is honey. West Virginia honey is often tree honey. Bees collect nectar from flowering trees such as locust and tulip poplar.

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“I think we could probably prove that the Appalachian region provides world-class honey,” he said.

Lilly is in her 60s and grew up in Raleigh County. He has been raising bees for over 25 years. Recently, there has been an increase in the number of new beekeepers in West Virginia. According to Shanda King, the state beekeeper, beekeeping is on the rise and so is the number of colonies per beekeeper.

Sara Ann Mclannahan of Charleston is one of them. “When entering my hives for the first time…they always say they can smell the fear. No, I was too excited for that,” Mclannahan said.

She recently took over the hives from her aunt. After lifting the top of one of the hives, an army of bees gathered on the top edge of the hive. She pumped a smoker to calm the agitated bees. “We’re going to force these guys down,” she said. The bees became listless as she inspected the hive.

Mclannahan had a lot of help learning how to keep bees. She has a colleague who has hives and he has become her mentor. Mark Lilly also had a mentor early on. His grandfather was a great bee lover. He kept the bees in hollow logs. He typically used gum trees that rotted from the inside out, making them perfect for bee hives.

“When my grandfather made it, it was a section of a log with a piece of wood or tin on it, and a comb in there, and he just took a big aluminum pan and a bread knife. and cut off the top which is where the honey was stored,” Lilly said.

Lilly’s grandfather kept bees for honey. It brought the family together when he placed the aluminum honeycomb pan in the center of the table next to the fresh cookies. But West Virginia beekeepers today are getting into beekeeping for more than honey. And Lilly should know. As a master beekeeper with the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective, he gives free lessons via Zoom to new beekeepers. This includes teaching how today’s beekeepers keep their swarms.

In her Beekeeping 101 lessons, Lilly covers everything from equipment to potential problems with swarms – things have changed since her grandfather’s days. “Generally, beekeepers all over the world use a Langstroth hive. It’s universal so it’s easy to equip. They must have movable frames to be inspected. To check for disease, you need to be able to remove the frames,” he said.

While Lilly took a great interest in beekeeping by watching her grandfather, he discovered much of what he had learned through his own research and by attending statewide conferences. . He is now part of a tight-knit network of beekeepers across the state. And Mclannahan too. She connects with beekeepers across the state through social media.

“Facebook groups have been amazing. I learned a lot about bees while attending the Women Beekeepers Retreat in July,” Mclannahan said. The retreat she attends each summer is facilitated by Phyllis Varian, who founded Women Beekeepers of West Virginia.

Varian noticed that beekeeping in West Virginia was dominated by men. She started the retreat to give women hands-on experience with bees. She also created a Facebook page that women use to get help with their beekeeping dilemmas. Mclannahan is a huge fan of the band.

“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 the beekeeping. And the same goes for Lilly in her work with the collective.

“The nice part of the collective is that it’s a great cross-section of society. We have young teenagers, all the way to older people, of different ethnic backgrounds. I would be comfortable saying that at least 50% of the members of the collective are women,” Lilly said.

This diverse group of beekeepers tend to share their knowledge. “We can all gain something by listening to the successes and mistakes of others. We can learn from it too,” Lilly said.

For Mclannahan and Lilly, sharing their beekeeping knowledge also means teaching the next generation. Mclannahan spends time in the apiary with her nine-year-old son. Her favorite part of the process? Enjoy honey.

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