CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In the spring and summer they can be seen all over West Virginia, busy pollinating everything from the decorative landscape to grains of wheat in the field.
In 2002, West Virginia legislators designated the honeybee the state insect -- but Apis mellifera, the common honeybee, is not native to North America. In the 1700s, pilgrims seeking religious freedom and a new land brought honeybees and their beekeeping skills with them from Europe for honey, a portable and easily stored sweetener.
Nevertheless, Wade Stiltner, the state's apiary inspector, said, "The honeybee is a good choice to represent the state of West Virginia as the state insect because it does everything from provide food for wildlife to pollinating hardwood trees, supporting our state's No. 1 industry: forestry."
In fact, said Kanawha Valley Beekeeper Association President Steve May, "Honeybees are the only insects that pollinate certain hardwoods vital to the timber industry."
Stiltner and May agree that without honeybees West Virginia would not have the quality of agriculture production it enjoys today.
In addition to pollinating the state's flora, the honeybee and its hive byproducts have become a booming cottage industry for many mom-and-pop entrepreneurs as well as a viable source of income for commercial migratory beekeepers around the state.
May said, "Local honey is premium honey. It sells for anywhere between $15 and $22 a quart at local farmers markets. Most West Virginia beekeepers sell out of their honey shortly after harvest."
Beekeepers also often sell wax, handmade candles and cosmetics to supplement the sale of honey.
Today, honeybees are threatened by many things including disease, parasites and climate change, which make the promotion of beekeeping as an industry even more critical to the insect's survival.
According to the West Virginia Department of Agriculture's pamphlet "Beekeeping in West Virginia," honeybees are no longer sustainable in the wild and must be kept by responsible beekeepers if they are to be saved from extinction.
West Virginia is committed to protecting the honeybee and its habitat, according to Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick.
"We want to take the honey industry to the next level," Helmick said. "Working cooperatively with the Division of Forestry and the Division of Highways, we'll begin seeding roadsides and interstate median strips with plants that will provide good nourishment for bees. We'll also begin redeveloping mine reclamation sites as bee yards, complete with compatible trees, plants and honeybee colonies."
Reach Autumn D.F. Hopkins at autumn.hopk...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.