CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Last year, West Virginia had its fewest honey-producing bee colonies since at least 1994 -- partly because beekeepers are giving up, the state's bee inspector said.
In 2011, about 4,000 West Virginia bee colonies produced honey, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, down from 5,000 colonies from 2010. Between 2006 and 2010, the numbers were between 5,000 and 6,000. As recently as 1994, there were 20,000 bee colonies producing honey in the state.
Nationwide, nearly 2.5 million bee colonies produced honey in 2011 -- a 7 percent drop from 2010, according to the USDA.
Wade Stiltner, a longtime apiarist (that means beekeeper) and the state Department of Agriculture's bee inspector, agrees that fewer people are beekeeping in the Mountain State.
Instead of preserving land that is full of wildflowers -- which the bees pollinate and ultimately use to produce honey -- West Virginians are destroying those areas, Stiltner said.
"Housing developments, malls, golf courses, football stadiums -- we're losing farms and ground that would be used for honey production that are going into other things now. We're losing more and more forage areas." Stiltner said. "I'm 59 years old and I can see places that were big, beautiful farms are now suburbs. Every time this happens there's less and less honey production going on. It's just a little more and more every year."
For those who do have the land, keeping bees isn't cheap, said Paul Carbonneau, owner of Killer Bee Honey in Hurricane. The apiarist has 58 hives producing honey on his 11 acres in Putnam County, as well as two Cabell County properties
Carbonneau, 69, started beekeeping at 14 years old, but officially got back into it four years ago.
It's a tough business that discourages many people, Carbonneau said. Not only does he check on his bees daily, there's also the hassle of putting on the bee suit every time, since Killer Bee is a one-man operation.
Carbonneau harvests, extracts the honey, bottles and labels everything himself to prepare it for sale.
One problem for the beekeeping profession, he said, is its small demographic.
There are 946 registered beekeepers in West Virginia, many of them elderly, Stiltner said.
In the United States, there are 125,000 beekeepers handling honey (including apiarists with just one hive), said Troy Fore, director of government relations at the American Beekeeping Federation.
"We don't have a lot of entrepreneurs who are young in this business. Maybe we're not getting out to the youth of America and West Virginia that beekeeping is a vital enterprise. It's a money-making occupation," Carbonneau said.