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Supporters says a new Kentucky law requiring mining companies to include native flowering plants in their mountaintop reclamation programs should prop up honeybee populations across the state, helping to preserve Appalachia's distinctive culinary traditions. "Most of our food depends on honeybee pollination," explains Eastern Kentucky University senior researcher Tammy Horn, who abandoned a career teaching English literature to fight for honeybees. "Currently, we're losing one out of every three colonies. It's a crisis."
Surface mining isn't responsible for the decimation of the honeybee population, Horn clarifies: Disease and the decline of beekeeping are just two among many factors contributing to the problem. "If we quit mining tomorrow, we'd still have a bee crisis," Horn says.
But Horn decided coal companies could ameliorate the situation by planting pollinator-friendly trees among the hardwoods they use to reforest torn-up mountaintops in accordance with federally regulated reclamation plans. Traditionally, Horn says, the companies gravitated toward "high-value hardwoods." "They plant black locust trees, which you can always sell to the fence industry for posts," she says. "The things they left out were trash trees like the sourwood, which is never going to be a straight, beautiful tree."
Yet the sourwood's a thing of beauty to honeybees, which delight in its blossoms. Kentuckians have been producing sourwood honey for generations, but Horn cautions honey isn't the only foodstuff dependent on a robust bee population. "Apples and watermelons and cherries are all dependent on honeybees," Horn says. "You can't have almonds without honeybees. Your tomatoes need pollination. In Appalachia, that's a huge problem, because people here keep gardens."
When pollination drops off, Horn says, produce prices spike. "If people can't afford fresh fruit and vegetables, then they're going to go to high-fructose corn syrup and we'll all pay more in the end," she says. "Now, when I talk to coal companies, I don't talk about people's diets and gardens. I make the pitch that having pollinators helps them get their bond back more quickly, since these trees help the hardwoods. Everybody wins."