Eastern Kentucky’s Thunder Ridge, which had its ridgeline contour erased by violent coal mining techniques, today blooms white with the blossoms of sourwood trees and hosts an incipient high ground industry of sourwood honey production.
One of numerous area ridgelines blasted into bituminous heaps, Thunder Ridge offers suitable habitat for the acid-tolerant Oxydendrum arboreum, which honeybees patronize exclusively during summer. The bees produce the acclaimed sourwood honey, regarded as the Eastern U.S.’s premier variety.
The coal industry and Eastern Kentucky University collaborated in the planting of sourwood saplings, which served to reclaim the damaged ridgetop contour, restore the traditional honey economy and support struggling honeybee populations.
Tammy Horn, researcher with the Eastern Kentucky Environmental Research Institute and originator of the initiative, offers tours of the honeybee hive, or “bee yard,” she maintains on the ridge. The surrounding landscape bears the chronological marks of the bituminous coal mining that fed generations of Kentuckians and provides an educational perspective on past and yet-ongoing operations.
Tammy’s honeybee vision also encompasses the long-lost nectar source of the American chestnut tree ( Castanea dentata). When chestnut blight decimated this species in the 20th century, honeybees lost a sustaining nectar source. The Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative is helping her restore the tree.
Dr. Horn oversees a planting of American chestnuts back-crossed with Chinese chestnuts to breed blight resistance. At the 10th level of back-crossing, they represent the furthest horticultural advance in the area of chestnut restoration. Tammy notes a growth rate of 2-3 feet per year.
Tammy’s venture benefits from the ecological cleansing associated with coal mining. Remote mountaintops stripped of original vegetation offer few environments suitable for either honeybee parasites or chestnut blight spores. Instead, they develop a new cover of bee-friendly plants such as goldenrod and ironweed.
Nearby Buckhorn Lake State Resort Park offers a convenient base for a honey tour. Contact Tammy at www.tammyhorn.com.