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Tammy Horn’s Bees Help Build a "New Kentucky"
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The American flag symbolizes “New Kentucky”’s coalfield labor and awareness.
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Tammy Horn harvests honey amid goldenrod.
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Horn finds contentment with honeybees.
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Coal Country Beeworks honey sets high standards of lightness and sweetness.
ONLINE BONUS: Listen to Tammy Horn talk about writing her most recent book, "Beeconomy" in the video above. For more videos, visit HolyBeePress on YouTube. For more information about Horn and her work, visit TammyHorn.com.
Author and former university teacher Tammy Horn has found a new focus for her considerable talents – the reclaiming of mined mountaintops to create havens for bees and the blooms they pollinate.
The alteration of our hilltops and summits through surface coal mining stirs a peculiar outcry, something that might be termed geospiritual. But Eastern Kentucky University is offering maybe the only available restorative: nothing less than a kind of “New Kentucky,” with the assistance of the coal mining industry itself.
Heading the effort is Dr. Tammy Horn, who runs a project called Coal Country Beeworks. At 44, she is enjoying a new career path away from what she saw as the shortcomings of conventional education.
“They just weren’t teaching the right things to the right people,” she says of her experiences teaching at the University of West Alabama, Berea College and Eastern Kentucky University. So she became director of the Appalachian revitalization project and in the process has carved out a role as alternative educator. An author as well, she has written “Bees in America: How the Honeybee Shaped a Nation” (University Press of Kentucky, 2005 ) and “Beeconomy: What Women and Bees Can Teach Us About Local Trade and the Global Market” (University Press of Kentucky, 2012).
Working with faculty at the Eastern Kentucky University Environmental Research Institute, she finds opportunity in strip-mined landscapes, turning them into Edens of buzzing honeybees and fragrant blooms which are fast becoming an expanding reality and fledgling industry. Coal Country Beeworks already embraces 33,000 acres of reclaimed mines, marked by spectacular high-country scenery in Perry, Letcher, Pike and Leslie counties.
CCB materialized from the ground up. Much of this area is remote country penetrated only by coal mining roads, an isolated jurisdiction untroubled by outside influences. The industry acted as a monstrous tilling machine, loosening up the earth and making it compatible with bee-pollinated plants. It represents a landscape awaiting vision.
On a September day overhung with purple ironweed and golden wild sunflower, we visited Horn’s signature apiary, Buckeye, in the windswept uplands above Hazard. It was the annual honey-collecting time for this beeyard, and I smelled campfire fragrance as she readied her smoker in order to quiet the bees for honey extraction.
“Pine needles,” was her answer when I asked what smoking agent she employed. She noted how the occupation of the bees with the abundant blooms calmed them.
As a beekeeper – her preferred job title – Horn accompanies nature more than coerces it. Telling evidence of this is her preference for naturally established stands of sourwood trees, toward which she moves her hives, relying on the bees to extend the stands further through pollination. She comes by her approach through her beekeeper grandmother, who gained renown for it in Harlan County.
The high country location of Horn’s operation contributes greatly to its success. The relative isolation of this site – nearly 2,000 feet up – grants it exemption from pesticide-driven industrial agriculture, which, combined with careful selection of bees for Varroa and Trachea mite resistance, results in zero bee loss from disease among her Italian Gold bees in Buckeye, an unusual claim in an era of rampant honeybee decline that sees one in three hives destroyed by disease. The basic fact of distance from diseased bee populations also plays a part.
If “New Kentucky” has a founder it is likely noted beekeeper Edwin Holcomb of neighboring Tennessee, who contributed 30 hives and a knowledge of queen bee production that led to today’s 70 hives and their 1,000 acres each of bee coverage, with the ultimate goal of 25,000 hives.
Once achieved, the resultant bee corridor will exceed the area of Delaware. In the spring of 2012, 50-100 mating nucs – nucleus colonies – added the dimension of queen bee production. Nucs represent miniature hives designed for worker bees to produce queens, which mate with drones and are marketed throughout the country as production queens.
The signature honey blend of Coal Country Beeworks is a kind of miner’s mix of blackberry, sourwood, locust and wildflower, to be supplemented by distinct varieties beginning in 2013 when increased student help will allow for honey collecting during three seasons. Horn rejoices at the approaching freedom from the prevalent goldenrod honey, which she finds difficult to market due to its strong flavor. Her beekeeper’s senses allow her to actually smell the ubiquitous goldenrod on her bees. She follows the progress of the sourwood stands on the summits and looks forward to offering the acclaimed honey they produce.
In the September heat and humidity, the smoking and honey-gathering complete, Horn’s partner and queen production manager Perry Amos closes the gate to the beeyard. At the entrance of the Buckeye mine waits a security guard surveying a view of an enormous coal seam. When we are finished with our labors, Horn reaches over and hands him a pint jar. Perhaps with visions of honey on biscuits, he thanks her for the agate-red blend adorned with comb and we bounce back down the hill.
When we approach Vicco – Virginia Iron Coal and Coke Company – a half-hour later, Horn adopts a cautious tone.
“I hesitate to take people here, because this is what they think Kentucky is all about,” meaning a steep-walled community with parallel proliferations of taverns and churches, and history of strife. Vicco’s strife passed into the later 20th century, when the enormous mining operation on the mountain above – the Montgomery Creek mine – led to condemnation of surface mining practices.
“But I need to bring my message to everyone,” she says as we pass through an area of deep poverty and begin climbing to a second, disease-free beeyard. Its hives stand silent against a distant background of flattened mountaintop.
Horn prefers post-1992 strip mine terrain, since that year marked the first legislation mandating the restoration of original land contours after mining. The controversial practice of mountaintop removal earns the beekeeper’s disdain. Like trees, she believes bee hives need a location on sloping ground, which allows drainage and eliminates the ponded water that breeds disease-carrying insects. As for mountaintop removal, it also involves the compacting of the disturbed ground, which makes it unfit for beekeeping because of the challenging growing conditions for wildflowers and trees alike.
New Kentucky stands at the intersection of approaching movements in forestry, transportation and wildlife management. Elk forage on its windswept grasslands, attracting hunting and wildlife-watching revenue. Horn points out a stand of back-crossed American chestnut trees bred into a 10th, latest generation of blight resistance, promising forest regeneration and further honey production from their abundant flowers. Those trees were among a hoped-for 100,000 planted through cooperation between the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative and coal mining companies. The very road over which we accessed the Montgomery Creek mine is dedicated for future use as a through-road, part of the coal company’s commitment to upgrading Kentucky’s transporation network with new routes. The honey industry provides an economic model around which this greener community becomes established.
“I see the honey industry as a tiger with five different tails,” Horn says. “Honey production, wax production, queen production, pollination and knowledge-based industries such as extension and sciences.” The sciences include pesticide analysis, pollen analysis, etc. She views Coal Country Beeworks as a project that, like the stand of chestnuts she oversees, has undergone a period of invisible growth before its present emergence.
What is it that motivates Dr. Tammy Horn? Environmentalism? Social justice? She expresses it in terms of the parallel between a healthy environment and healthy people – a kind of mending of the seams.
It’s easy to see her vision as one of a human community as busily and contentedly engaged as the bees at work on a hilltop in New Kentucky.