West Virginia beekeepers say their tradition is about more than just honey

It seems that beekeepers in West Virginia can learn as much from honeybees as they can from each other. Beekeepers in the state get much more than honey; they gain 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 nonprofit organization that helps train beekeepers in economically deprived regions of West Virginia and Virginia. On a recent sunny day, Lilly showed me his beehives. Against the background of the steady buzz of busy bees, he lifted the box from a hive to check the honey production of his swarm.

“This colony is doing very well in preparation for spring. We’re probably three weeks plus before the power strikes,” Lilly said.

The flow Mark was referring to is the honey. West Virginia honey is often tree honey. Bees collect nectar from flowering trees such as grasshopper and tulip poplar.

“I think we can probably prove that the Appalachians deliver world-class honey,” he said.

Lilly is in her 60s and grew up in Raleigh County. He has 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 increasing, as is the number of colonies per beekeeper.

Sara Ann Mclannahan from Charleston is one of them. “Getting in my hives the first time… they always say 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 of 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 excited bees. “We’re going to force these guys to go down,” she said. The bees became lethargic when we inspected the hive.

Margaret McLeod Leef

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Public Broadcasting West Virginia

Folkways reporter Margaret Mcleod Leef learns about beekeeping in Summers County, WV at Appalachian Beekeeping Collective.

Mclannahan has 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 had a mentor early on. His grandfather was fond of bees. He kept bees in hollowed out trunks. He usually used gum trees that rot from the inside out, making them perfect for beehives.

“When my grandfather did it, it was a piece of a block of wood with a piece of wood or tin on it, and combed in there, and he just took a big aluminum dish pan and a bread knife and cut the top off that’s where the honey was kept, ‘ said Lilly.

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

In his Beekeeping 101 classes, Lilly covers everything from equipment to potential swarming issues — things have changed since his grandfather’s time. “In general, beekeepers all over the world use a Langstroth Hive. It’s universal, so it’s easy to get equipment. They must have movable frames to be inspected. To check for disease, you have to be able to pull the frames out,” he said.

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

Mark Lilly Beekeeping

Margaret McLeod Leef

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Public Broadcasting West Virginia

Mark Lilly inspects a frame of his beehive.

“Facebook groups were great. I 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 noted that beekeeping in West Virginia was dominated by males. 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 issues. Mclannahan is a big fan of the group.

“Some people have questions, and I’m like, ‘Oh, wow, that’s really cool. Let’s see what everyone says.’” Mclannahan has bonded with people from all walks of life through beekeeping. the same goes for Lilly in his work with the collective.

“The great thing about the collective is that it is a great cross-section of society. We have young teens, all the way to more seniors, different ethnic backgrounds. I’d say at least 50 percent of the collective members are women,” Lilly said.

This diverse group of beekeepers, they tend to share their knowledge. “We can all gain by hearing about other people’s successes and their mistakes. We can learn from that too,” said Lilly.

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

“My son is a peanut butter and honey sandwich eater every day. He probably eats a jar a month, and I can hardly keep it in stock,” Mclannahan said. And Lilly spends the evenings bee-working with his kids and grandchildren, and 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 are working to improve their society – this beehive is their community. And they want to see it all prosper. And that’s for the community or the hive, to be healthy, to produce everything it needs, in terms of food, to protect each other. I think we can all learn to get along like honeybees.”

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This story originally aired on the episode of Inside Appalachia on August 5, 2022.

This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, made possible with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies at the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation.

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