By Marlene Cimons
Mark Lilly, 59, grew up and still lives in West Virginia. He spent three decades as an insurance adjuster, often talking to people struggling through the decline of coal. At the end of some very long days, he would escape to his bee hives. "It was therapeutic," he said. Life in coal country may no longer be what it once was, but "the bees haven't changed," he said.
Lilly has since retired from the insurance business, but he still tends to his honeybees. He now is using what he learned from these insects to help out-of-work miners and others hurt by coal's demise. He's turning them into beekeepers.
Lilly sees beekeeping as a way for longtime Appalachians to preserve their connection to the land and to earn extra money during lean times. Some might even be able to support themselves and their families on income from bees.
"Most of the people in these coal towns are very open to anything that involves the outdoors and nature," Lilly said. "Many of those who lost jobs in the mines are now working lower paid jobs because they don't want to leave. They are tied to the land. We have an opportunity to go back to those communities and provide them with a new skill and some additional income, so they can stay where they want."
The Appalachian Beekeeping Collective, as it is called, was funded by a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal-state partnership that supports economic opportunities for the people of central Appalachia. The project is part of Appalachian Headwaters, a nonprofit that restores streams and forests harmed by mining and retrains coal workers for new jobs in sustainable industries.
"We want to reforest old mine sites and recreate the native forest ecosystem that would have been there if it had not been strip mined," said Kate Asquith, program director for Appalachian Headwaters. "We started to look at ways we could do economic work out of that reforesting, and beekeeping came naturally. You have to bring in pollinators and honeybee hives are a big part of that."
Joe Lovett, an environmental lawyer and Appalachian Headwaters board member, agreed. "We love it here and wanted to do something to help the region recover and to create jobs that support people for the long term," he said. "Beekeeping is one of those. It's not only a sustainable job, but makes people aware of the natural world."
Lilly believes in approaching people in these communities with an understanding of their culture. "The coal fields [are] an area where environmentalists are seen as bad people, so we don't use that word," he said.
"When we talk to them, we don't tell them that this is about the environment. I ask them, 'what do you eat?' and they will say fruit and nuts, among other things. Then I tell them, 'Look at this insect. This insect is important. Without it, you wouldn't have those fruits and nuts,'" Lilly said. "I tell them that what we do affects the entire chain, and they begin to understand. You then see this person grow into caring about the environment, although they still wouldn't call themselves environmentalists. We are taking the first steps to helping them see that the environment is a really good thing."
Beekeepers inspect the honeycomb. John Farrell
In January, Lilly will teach the 35 people from southern West Virginia how to raise and manage bees and how to produce honey. Appalachian Headwaters plans to expand that number to 85 the following year. The novice beekeepers will learn how bees breed and behave within their own society. They also will learn how to keep their hives healthy. The biggest challenge will be to overcome their fear of getting stung. Lilly has lost count of his stings over the years, but said he's gotten used to it.
"I won't tell anybody you'll never get stung," he said. "That's a fallacy. But as they become comfortable with it, it becomes easier. The swelling and redness and itchiness decreases over time. That was always the worst part. You'd get stung and it would itch for three days. Now I get stung in the morning, and by lunch I can't tell where it was."
The Appalachian Beekeeping Collective plans to process, market and distribute honey. The ultimate goal is to bring millions of dollars into the region and provide income for hundreds of Appalachians. The new beekeepers will receive hives either for free or at a reduced price, depending on their income.
The eventual goal is to have thousands of hives flourishing in the area. Debbie Delaney, associate professor of entomology at the University of Delaware, who helped establish the collective's first 500 colonies of bees last summer, predicted that "in that area of West Virginia, if they do things right, they should be able to get close to 200 pounds of honey off of each hive."
Honey sells from $3 to $25 a pound, depending on whether beekeepers use chemicals to raise the insects, Asquith said. "Our beekeepers won't be using chemicals, which adds a lot of value to the honey," she said. The collective will process and store the honey in a large processing facility. The structure is the site of an old camp owned by coal companies that thousands of miners' children attended.
"When I was there over the summer, at least twice a week somebody would drive by and say, 'I went to camp here 50 years ago. This place means so much to me.' So it's really a special spot," Delaney said. "There's so much rich history there."
All of those involved in the beekeeping collective recognize that the region needs time to recover, but this project represents an important step in that direction. "We spent a lot of years scarring the land," Lilly said. "Now we will begin trying to heal some of those scars."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
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By Jacob L. Steenwyk and Antonis Rokas
From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
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Growing Contribution<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzM3NDY5Ny9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjM4MTgyM30.IuQTKQs1stvYYKD6vaVTrqAyoBsUG0BhDvlhxsyKwPA/img.png?width=980" id="02a05" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2841f82b1785df5d5ed7bf64d3bb882b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
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