Tammy Horn checking to see if the queen bee is laying

Debbie Baker

By federal law, coal companies have to restore the land they used back to an as-good-or-better condition than it was in when they started mining. However, that is in terms of commercial value, not ecological value. Coal mining can wreak havoc on a landscape, and then turn that ravaged landscape into something like big box stores or residential housing. But thanks to the efforts of one bee enthusiast by the name of Tammy Horn, there are wide swaths of former coal strip mines that are returning to ecologically diverse forest land, bolstering hope for not only a once-again thriving local ecosystem but also a stronger local economy.

Growing Trees, Growing Bees, Growing Communities

Tammy Horn is part of Coal Country Beeworks, and wants to turn eastern Kentucky and neighboring West Virginia into a "honey corridor." She sees the potential for reforesting mined areas and teaching locals how to become bee keepers, transforming the torn landscape into a strong ecosystem and providing a new component to the local economy.

Currently there are 53 hives on five sites, but Horn hopes some 25,000 hives could be supported on former strip mines. "Coal companies have created over 33,000 acres of reclaimed land. Within these isolated areas, we can produce bees that are better acclimated to the region and, in effect, create 'genetic islands' of bee colonies that will aid in preserving biodiversity of bees and plants in North America."

WATCH VIDEO: Nature Inc. goes to the almond groves of California where we find a mysterious crash in the bee population which threatens the $15 billion agri-industry in the United States.

The reforestation effort is a big part of this story. Many times, former coal mines can be turned into sites for anything form strip malls to residential homes. However, there are issues ranging from cracked foundations and water quality problems, to the blatant fact that a big piece of habitat has been lost for wildlife. With the help of forestry minded-people in the right places, foresters have found footing on former coal mines, showing that logging can be commercially viable with less ecosystem destruction.

However, the foresters weren't interested in rehabilitating the undercanopy, which is where the plants pollinators like bees enjoy most grow. That's where Horn rolled up her sleeves and got to work, convincing those with influence that the undercanopy is just as important to both biodiversity and the economy as the valuable hardwoods being grown for timber.

Another success of the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative has been the reintroduction of the American chestnut. May 4th, 2008, Hazard KY. Photo by Chris Radcliffe

Getting Coal Companies On Board With Reforesting Land

"Once you become a beekeeper, your vision changes so that it's even more specific. [When the project started,] CCD was just beginning to be defined, and I could see that there were a lot of these surface mine areas that if the right people knew, we could make them pollinator friendly, and the right people happened to be living in the area and wanted to have a conversation," states Horn. The coal companies, realizing the opportunity these projects could provide to them for a better image in the community, were happy to oblige. They have signed on to 10-year contracts, promising to continue to plant and maintain pollinator-friendly plant species over the next decade. The coal companies have both the budget and the desire to restore the areas, and it has been a surprising but positive partnership. WATCH VIDEO: Focus Earth: Coal's Hard Truth Making Bees Important In The Community Eye "I think somebody would have thought of it sooner than later, that's the way science works," says Horn, but she also says, "It takes an idea as much time as it takes a tree to grow. I have my goals for this but they're long term goals." That's why we're glad it was Horn who thought of it when she did, and has already got the ball rolling in the bees' favor. But not just the bees - for the locals as well. Several of the sites are next to communities with high poverty rates. The sites, while also the object of some vandalism, have helped to educate people on how bees benefit them, and how they can be used in cottage industries like soap making and honey. Horn hosts field trips for community members and school children, and these sites serve as training sites rather than production. Perfect Places for Bee Research The more remote sites are used for research on bee populations, including how to breed bees that are stronger, and more adapted to the area. Horn is working on research for raising queen bees at these locations, hoping that their distance from industrial agriculture will help with research. WATCH VIDEO: The Keep it Green Girls catch bees in the act of making honey. Horn notes that forest-based bee keeping has been around for ages. She looked at places like Russia and Germany who have been able to restore forest biodiversity and make beekeeping an economic tool. Those examples seem to be working here, as coal country is, in some small way, returned to the bees and to the local residents. The project has proven that when industry and environmentalists work together, there can be important successes. So, with the help of the honey bee, and one incredibly dedicated researcher in Tammy Horn, there's hope for a strong recovery for areas where strip mining harmed the landscape. And considering coal mining in Appalachia is expected to be on the decline, having a new, healthy way to make money in coal country will be more important than ever.