HINTON, W.V. – Wild and wonderful, the natural beauty of West Virginia can’t be questioned.
But the people who live there have seen better days. Sean Phelps sees it all the time.
“Bunch of friends from high school that are in prison for drugs, or they (overdosed) from drugs or committed suicide because of drugs. It’s a lot worse here than people think,” said Phelps who lives in the state.
The opioid crisis has hit West Virginia as hard as any other state in the country. Combine that with nearly 80,000 coal jobs lost since 1990 and things have been a little bleak.
“I had some friends in the coal mines. When the coal mines shut down, they’re not as well off now, that is for sure. Bunch of them are struggling really bad,” he said.
But things are buzzing at Appalachian Beekeeping Collective.
“Bee keeping integrates everything in our environment and it’s such a heart and mind thing. Like I was saying earlier, people are rooting for honeybees. They’re worried about honeybees and we want to give them tools to really help them in a concrete way,” said Kevin Johnson with the collective.
The group is cracking open honeycomb and harvesting sweet, sticky, honey.
“It’s a sticky job,” said Robbie Gardisky, who works at the collective harvesting honey.
Phelps used to be an EMT and janitor. Gardisky was doing landscaping. Michael Beckner worked in IT.
“Not a lot of people that work a job say they love their job. Everybody that works here, loves their job,” said Phelps.
They’re all on a second career of sorts. The goal of the collective is to create economic opportunities for rural families in the state. They teach people the skills and give them the materials to keep their own bees.
“Our work, even though it’s focused on bees, it’s about working with people,” said Johnson.
Johnson is one of the people who mentors prospective beekeepers. Passing on his knowledge is one of his favorite parts of his job.
“We have a 12-year-old who is the youngest apprentice beekeeper in West Virginia. We also have an 83-year-old beekeeper. We’ve got people who live on large cattle farms, people who live on small lots in hollers. And all of those are great places for bees,” he said.
The collective has taught and distributed bee boxes to hundreds of West Virginians. They also harvest the sweet nectar for their participants and pay them for it.
It’s really all in an effort to help rebuild some of the people in this state the world seems to have forgotten and connect them with the amazing natural resources this state has to offer.
“I think the people of West Virginia are perhaps its most underappreciated resource, but its most valuable,” said Johnson.