Bee Queen

By / Photography By Chris Radcliffe | January 01, 2012
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tammy horn beekeeping

EKU prof seeks sweetness for strip-mine sites

The Sourwood Tree doesn’t get any respect in forestry circles because of its low timber value. “It’s considered a trash tree,” said Dr. Tammy Horn, who would like to see the sourwood, a small understory tree of the Eastern Kentucky forest, elevated to higher status.

If she has anything to do with it — and she certainly may — the sourwood will once again be known by an old-fashioned nickname, Appalachian Lily of the Valley, a name that celebrates the tree’s fragrant mid-summer blooms that are crucial to the health of honeybees.

Horn said bees in Kentucky need three seasons of pollinator friendly blossoms, from early spring to late fall. The sourwood’s bell-shaped flowers bridge a mid-summer gap very nicely. Horn is a native of Harlan County in Eastern Kentucky coal country. The daughter of teachers, she set out to become an English professor, earning her doctorate at the University of Alabama and starting on a solid teaching career. But she was sidetracked. She returned to Kentucky one summer to help her ailing grandfather with beekeeping. She got hooked and made an abrupt career change from English professor to apiculturist.

Today Horn, 43 is director of Coal Country Beeworks, a 4-yearold initiative of the Eastern Kentucky Environmental Research Institute at Eastern Kentucky University.

As a result of the project there are now a total of seven mine reclamation sites in Eastern Kentucky with about 70 big hives and 40 queen “nucs,” smaller hives centered on a queen bee. Horn and Perry Amos, field manager for Coal Country Beeworks, tend all the hives at the bee yards, as they are called.

Meanwhile, Horn’s English credentials haven’t gone to waste. She has authored important books about bees and has a third on the way. First came Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation (University Press of Kentucky, ­‑‑) and, more recently, Beeconomy: What Women and Bees Can Teach Us About Local Trade and the Global Market (University Press of Kentucky, -­‑­). She is at work on another book, Apiforestation: The Future of Beekeeping. With the three books she will have examined the past, present and future of our honeybee populations.

Horn’s vision is to create a “honey corridor” in Eastern Kentucky and neighboring West Virginia. The starting point is reforesting more than 33,000,‑‑‑ surface mined acres using bee-friendly trees such as sourwood, basswood, redbud, dogwood and black locust and planting flowers such as yarrow, coreopsis, purple coneflowers, sunflowers, partridge peas and black-eyed susans.

Horn got a bee in her bonnet, so to speak, in the 2006-07 academic year when she was National Endowment of Humanities Chair of Appalachian Studies at Berea College. She wanted to examine the potential effects of surface mining in Appalachia on honeybees. A first step was becoming a student of state and federal law regarding coal mining.

Coal companies weren’t required to reclaim land until 1977, but at first reclamation focused on commercial, residential or recreational development. The isolated nature of mining sites plus the tendency of mined land to sink and settle no matter how much it was compacted produced mixed results with this type of reclamation. The Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative began in 1995, giving coal companies the option to reforest mined land with high-value hardwoods.

When Horn and the Coal Country Beeworks initiative came along in 2008, the coal companies’ options expanded to include bee foraging trees and flowers. Diversified plantings create the potential for benefits beyond those to the timber industry. A bee economy could grow. Folks could establish themselves as beekeepers and queen rearers, offer pollination services and produce honey and beeswax. Potential existed to develop ecotourism focused on bees.

Women could play a vital role in all of this, said Horn. “This is not just blue collar, vocational work. It also uses the brain. Horticulturists don’t know bees. A knowledge of beekeeping can give women an edge, another tool in their back pockets.” For her most recent book, Horn makes a good case for beekeeping as a path to self-sufficiency for women and their families. While doing research in Australia, Europe, South America and Africa, Horn found that women beekeepers found ways to manage motherhood, careers and help the environment while enjoying a sense of community as beekeepers.

The United States loses one in every three beehives a year due to pesticides, development, deforestation and other factors. “That would still be the case if mining stopped tomorrow,” Horn said. She figures that since the mining companies are required to reclaim land, why not do some of it in the name of improving the plight of honeybees?

She hopes a strain of Appalachian bee might be bred that is resistant to disorders that threaten the health of bee populations. “Queen bees will be more and more important,” she predicts. “Bees will be needed that are good honey producers, that tolerate some neglect and resist pathogens.”

Under federal law, former strip mines must be returned to their prior condition or reclaimed for “better and higher uses.” What better and higher use than developing a honey corridor in Appalachia involving Appalachian residents, Horn would ask.

The bees are quiet now, wintering over. They are clustering to stay warm and have formed spheres about the size of a basketball. So this is a good time to start learning some beekeeping skills, said Horn. And it’s a good time to think about how beekeeping can play a major role in reshaping the country’s economy.

She likes to quote an 18th century English teacher/beekeeper, Christian Spengel, who once wrote: “There should be standing armies of bees.”

Beekeeping School will be offered at the Hazard Community and Technical College in Hazard, Kentucky, on Jan. The deadline for sending in a registration form and fee for the all-day workshop is Jan. 21. Horn will be there along with other experts. For more information, call the Perry County Extension office at 606-436-2044. The Bluegrass Beekeeping School will be held March 10 in Frankfort. Look for further details at

To reach Horn, call EKU at 859-622-6914 or email her at

Linda Stahl is a former writer for The Courier-Journal who lives in the woods in Eastern Kentucky.

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