Discover more about the Apidea family and the free-flowing golden elixir that it creates.
Beekeeping has created small businesses and a growing apiary community throughout the Mountain State
Roughly 25,000 years ago, early humans peered into foreboding hives full of grumpy insects and discovered liquid gold. Cave drawings around the world show men scaling tall ladders, defending against bee swarms, and trying whatever methods available to them to harvest honeycomb. All this without an EpiPen in sight.
It took a few thousand years for humans to figure out how to domesticate the beehive in order to control its production and the harvest of honey. Historians believe apiarys dotted the Old World, and records show that the oldest large apiary on Earth might have existed in what is now northern Israel. It had as many as 200 working hives in production and was destroyed around the 9th century BC.
The popularity of beekeeping has ebbed and flowed in the many centuries since. Back in 1917 when the West Virginia Beekeepers Association was organized, State Apiarist Charles Reese reported that, as of the 1910 census, West Virginia had 110,000 colonies of bees registered with his office. Compare that to the 14,497 colonies that now–State Apiarist Shanda King reported to the association during a meeting in November 2021. That decrease over the past century probably has more to do with urbanization of the state than lack of interest in the hobby. In fact, interest in beekeeping is so strong these days that it supports dozens of small businesses around the state.
Will Lambert used to work on oil rigs and wasn’t home much. Back then, he had a lot of time to think and would imagine a future when he’d finally decide to stay put. He’d learn more about keeping bees, he thought. Life could change when he no longer traveled so much.
In 2016, Lambert welcomed a baby girl, his first, and his first bees, too. To prepare—for the hive, not the baby—he took a beginner beekeeper class in Mercer County. His apiary adventure began with two hives. He now has more than 100.
As Lambert learned more about keeping bees alive, he also learned about the pests that can take out whole hives under the right circumstances. One such bane for beekeepers is the Varroa mite, which can be controlled in kept hives with oxalic acid. Vaporizers that disperse the acid in a cloud of fine mist are effective, but Lambert found they were prohibitively expensive. Luckily, he is a handy guy. He made his own vaporizer for a fraction of the cost and put a few on Ebay to test the market. In his first year, he sold 8,000 units.
Lambert parlayed the profits from selling vaporizers into a full-fledged storefront in Princeton. He named the place Blue Ridge Bee Company and opened to customers in 2019. Beekeepers travel from surrounding states to gear up, be inspired, and snag “nucs”— ready-to-go hives of bees sold as starter colonies to new and experienced beekeepers alike. Blue Ridge Bee Company sells as many as 800 nucs each year. Interest has grown so much in the region that Lambert sells nucs as fast as they arrive. “It’s almost hard to keep up with the demand.”
You’ll find more than just nucs at Blue Ridge Bee Company. The store carries pretty much everything related to bees, from hives to protective equipment, bee-themed goods, and more than 20 types of honey the last time Lambert counted. It’s definitely worth the drive, whether you prefer to admire bees from afar or consider yourself a full-blown apiculturist.
Go to any farmers market, specialty food store, or grocery store carrying locally made products, and it’s clear to see that a wide variety of honey comes out of West Virginia’s hills and hollers. The West Virginia Department of Agriculture makes it easy for the state’s beekeepers to sell their harvest—offering labeling guides and best practice protocols—and encourages direct marketing by purveyors to the public resulting in all those little small-batch jars of liquid gold you see on the shelves.
Sarah Haddock works the hives at Honey Moon Apiary in Martinsburg with her husband, Andrew, and the couple’s young sons, Jack and Jase. The Haddocks are big gardeners and enjoy growing their own food. They noticed a few years back that their crops weren’t thriving, and they suspected an absence of honey bees was to blame. They took a class, joined a local beekeepers’ club, and started with two colonies in 2014. Their two colonies turned to six by the end of that season, and the family expanded even more the following year.
They quickly realized that they were producing enough honey to support a small business. They now care for 30 colonies of honey bees on their 30-acre farm, and those hives each generate about 50 pounds of honey each year. The Haddocks sell at farmers markets, events, and even in a few local businesses. But they got really creative when Andrew Haddock reimagined a beat-up blue truck bed. Near their farm you’ll spy the roadside, self- serve honey cart that markets the apiary’s honey, operates on the honor system, and even supports the Haddock’s faith in humanity.
“There’s a high demand for locally produced honey, and we restock our wagon on a daily basis,” Sarah Haddock says. “We’ve noticed a couple times that the money doesn’t always match the inventory gone, but people will come back the next day, or leave a note saying that they were a couple of dollars short and promise to return with the rest. Some people will even pay more, but it always works out. People are honest and really value the product. Some days we might sell one or two jars from the wagon, other days we sell half a dozen or more. It’s turned into a great little side business that we plan to continue as long as we can, because we really believe in all the good stuff about the product.”
Bees are such versatile and efficient creatures that they’re even proving effective at economic development initiatives. One need only consider the wildly successful Appalachian Beekeeping Collective for proof.
The ABC is a program organized and supported by the nonprofit Appalachian Headwaters. The goal has always been to revive land that was used and abused for decades by coal companies by improving water quality, implementing reforestation, and reintroducing native plants. Bees just happened to be the perfect fit to help the organization achieve its goals—and thus, the ABC was born.
The program trains, supports, and provides bees and equipment to up-and-coming beekeepers. Classes are offered each year, and you can find out more about this year’s schedule at abchoney.org.
These tiny, industrious insects have also given hope to out-of-work miners living in distressed counties left in the dust by coal. Organizers believed that, while the coal heritage ran deep in these parts, so did a beekeeping heritage—and if you ask around, you’ll hear beekeeping connections that exist in most of the area’s families, as generations have worked the same land as far back as they can remember.
To date, the Summers County–based organization has trained 100 new beekeepers, planted 300,000 trees, and donated more than 3,000 pounds of honey to local food pantries serving southern West Virginia, all while helping program participants produce income “in the greenest way possible.”
To add to its many accolades, the collective’s black locust honey recently won the prestigious “Made in the South” award from Garden & Gun magazine. Contest judge Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods fame described ABC’s honey as “the extra special kind you’d happily slather on a biscuit.” Environmentalism, economic development, a boost for West Virginians, and award-winning honey: It doesn’t get much sweeter than that.
Mountain State lawmakers passed the West Virginia Apiary Act in 1991 to regulate the state’s beekeeping industry. Anyone who possesses hives in the state must register them online or by mail with the Department of Agriculture (WVDA) every July. The department also created a best management practices guide for beekeeping that helps apiarists keep their hives, and their neighbors, safe while supporting a valuable agricultural activity.
Along with annual registration comes the opportunity to have your hives inspected regularly for diseases and common apiary pests that can take out a whole hive quickly. For more information on West Virginia’s beelaws, visit the WVDA’s website.
The National Institutes of Health published a 2017 journal article supporting honey as a valuable aid in treatment of a mind-blowing variety of conditions, like:
Anxiety, Asthma, Burns, Cancer, Constipation, Convulsions, Depression, Diarrhea, Eczema, Eye diseases, Fatigue, Heart disease, Hepatitis, Hiccups, Diabetes, Memory loss, Mellitus, Throat infections, Thirst, Ulcers, Worms, Wound healing
By way of the West Virginia State Senate’s Concurrent Resolution No. 9, the indispensable honey bee became the official state insect in 2002. The governing body took the formal action as part of an effort to honor the honey bee’s critical agricultural role, to celebrate honey’s expanding agricultural significance in the Mountain State, and to support the assertion that the honey bee “produces more benefit to the state’s economy than any other insect.”
One of the first decisions you’ll make as you begin your beekeeping adventure is what type of hive to use. The most common is the Langstroth, shown here, the model best suited for backyard and commercial beekeepers, supplies for which are easily found. Two other hive types you might consider are one that is conventionally known as the “top bar,” and which provides a more natural environment and happier bees but at a higher cost, and the Warre, which is less common and even prohibited in some states.
So you think you might want to be a beekeeper? The “why” is important.
The Environmentalist Beekeeper
You consider bees magical insects that are critical to our environment and the future of the planet. Beekeeping, for you, is about being part of the solution, and you just want to give bees a nice place to live without expecting anything in return.
The Backyard Beekeeper
You’d love to take up beekeeping as a hobby, and you plan on having multiple hives and harvesting honey that you may or may not sell. You’re open to creating a small side hustle with your hives, but you’re also happy to keep all the honey for yourself. You’ll just see how things go.
The Commercial Beekeeper
You plan on having 40-plus hives and creating a small business dealing in honey, bee products, bee colonies, and even pollination services. You’re interested in utilizing your beehives to make a living, full-time, and have plenty of wide open spaces to support your endeavor.
Everything but the bees.
A Bee Suit
Some form of protection is a necessity for beekeepers. A veil is mandatory, and bee gloves are wise.
A Bee Suit
Calms bees down for easier inspections and extractions; a definite need for beginners.
Necessary to perform inspections and extract honey.
Bee Feeder and WAter Dish
Bees need help with food and water during bad weather and winter months.
Time to clear up some myths about beekeeping.
1. You need a big yard
Beehives are compact structures that don’t require much space. And bees forage for food for miles away from their hives. This means that even a small backyard can accommodate hives as long as your neighbors won’t mind, your neighborhood allows hives, food sources are plentiful in the surrounding area, and pollution is minimal.
2. No Need to tell the neighbors
It’s imperative that you tell any neighbors close by about your plan to keep bees, out of respect and in case they have legitimate bee fears. Don’t worry—if at first they aren’t agreeable to your new hobby, you can try bribing them with honey
3. No Need to tell the state, either
It’s against the law to keep bees without notifying the state of West Virginia by registering your hives. There are hive pests and diseases that can wipe out whole colonies, and the state conducts inspections to nip these problems in the bud before they spread to other keepers’ hives.
4. You can expect honey your first year
Not all new hives produce enough honey for harvest in the first year. Honey yield depends heavily on weather conditions, plants available for foraging, and other factors that can be beyond a beekeeper’s control.
5. Honey bees are mean
They’re not, in fact, and only turn to stinging—after which they die—when they feel threatened and called to defend the hive. Despite having tiny brains, they can even recognize human faces from repeated interactions, making them less inclined to greet familiar visitors aggressively.
The state beekeepers’ association is an indispensable resource.
On a warm summer day in 1917, the Panhandle Beekeepers Association met for its annual meeting and picnic in Triadelphia. There, members decided it was high time to charter a statewide association. It was a charge led by the then–State Apiarist Charles Reese.
All Panhandle members joined the statewide group that day, elected officers, and seated a board of directors. They also formulated the group’s goals: to teach better beekeeping practices, to fight diseases and pests affecting beehives, to inform members of their legal rights as beekeepers, to inform the public about the importance of honey as a food and of beekeeping as an industry, and to raise bee products to a place of eminence among agricultural crops in the state.
More than 100 years later, the group is still going strong. Bridgeport resident Louisa Householder is its current president, and beekeeping runs in her blood. “I was always really fascinated with bees—their social structure and all the cool things about them—despite being afraid of bees in general,” she says. “When my youngest graduated, I decided that I was going to get into honey bees, and I purchased my first large hive. Later I found out that my grandfather was also a beekeeper, and one of my cousins was, too. So it must be in the genes.”
The association works hand in hand with the state Department of Agriculture Apiary Division to fulfill its mission, and education is still a main component of those efforts. There are currently more than 25 local chapters around the state, likely one near you, that provide extensive resources to beekeepers, including newcomers. Joining a group is, hands down, the best way to get started.
“Beekeepers are some of the most giving people I know, giving of their time and their resources,” Householder says. “Joining one of the local chapters and our statewide group gives you access to programs, educational workshops, specialized vendors, camaraderie, and wonderful mentors.”
To learn more about beekeeper associations near you, visit wvbeekeepers.org.
Whether you’re in your neighborhood grocery store aisle or patronizing your local farmers market, the number of honey variations from which to choose can be daunting. Here’s a handy guide to the common terms you might find on bottle labels.
Honey comes in a variety of colors, all dependent on the nectar the bees utilized in making it. Lighter honeys tend to be on the milder side, while honeys that are darker taste stronger. Honey can also become darker over time or after being heated. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies honey into seven categories based on color: water white, extra white, white, extra light amber, light amber, amber, and dark amber.
Raw honey isn’t pasteurized, heated, or cooked in any way. It is strained to remove impurities—like beeswax remnants and bee parts—before bottling. It’s the type of honey for sale that most closely resembles what you would find in the hive.
Blended honey refers to a mixture of two or more honey types combined in one bottle, or honey created by multi-floral foraging. Artisanal and small-batch honey purveyors often experiment with flavors, colors, and textures of different honeys to develop exciting combinations.
Creamed honey is made by combining nine parts liquid honey with one part granulated or crystallized honey. The mixture—sometimes called whipped honey—is cooled and stored around 57° until it sets. It is often lighter in color than raw honey and can be more easily spread.
Flavored honey refers to honey products to which external flavors are added after harvest. Honey has natural flavors depending on what the bees that made it regularly forage on—think clover, sourwood, or basswood honeys. But some honey makers infuse exotic flavors in, too, like cinnamon, ginger, or hot peppers.
Crystallized honey is made when liquid honey transforms to a more solid state. This can occur naturally over time, but can be accelerated by adding water to your honey and storing it in your refrigerator without a lid. This type of honey is referred to by beekeepers as “set honey.” If you continue the dehydration process, you’ll eventually end up with powdered or granulated honey.
Honeycomb has existed as a culinary delicacy for thousands of years. Plainly stated, it’s the wax hexagonal structure removed from inside a hive. It can be eaten alone or as a food accompaniment.