Soon after completing her doctorate in English literature at the University of Alabama, Dr. Tammy Horn Potter made a deal with her grandfather. She would help him with his bees for one day.
“When he opened a beehive, it was the most magical thing,” Tammy recalled. “I wondered why we had to dissect worms in biology class when we could have done this.”
Tammy, who was born in Harlan County, had been determined to forge a career far afield from math and science. Although the bees she had shunned all her life now surprisingly fascinated her, her grandfather encouraged her to make use of her education.
She did, teaching English and literature for 10 years at the University of West Alabama, Eastern Kentucky University and Berea College. In her 10th year in higher education, she used a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to create a pilot project focusing on the relationship between coal mine reclamation sites and honeybees.
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That experience led her to take one year off from teaching, so she could do more research about how pollinator habitats benefit reforestation.
She received a private grant from a beekeeping family and embarked on a new career path, eventually becoming a senior researcher and apiculturist in the Center for Economic Development, Entrepreneurship and Technology at EKU.
Tammy also became director of Coal Country Beeworks, a project affiliated with EKU that develops pollinator habitat on surface mine sites.
“It was like a snowball rolling downhill,” Tammy said. “I was a little bit ahead of it and was working like a little hamster on a wheel. Everything I had been doing transferred well — the ability to write grants, to teach classes and to write reports. It wasn’t an abrupt transition.”
In June 2014, Tammy, 48, began her current role as Kentucky State Apiarist in the state Department of Agriculture.
“It’s been an extension of my work,” she said. “In some ways, I felt like I was already doing the position as far as (beekeeping) education goes. At EKU, I had been trying to develop economic development for beekeepers in Eastern Kentucky. (The opportunities include queen bee production, honey production, pollination services, beeswax and cosmetics production, and scientific research and genetics.)
“This job has given me a platform to also work with Western Kentucky surface mine sites,” she continued. “I’ve been able to broaden my message that trees are a crop and trees are a part of agriculture.”
Being the state apiarist also has enabled her to work with the White House in developing strategies to increase the pollinator population nationwide.
“I didn’t see that coming,” she said.
Tammy, who keeps bees at her Lexington farm, prefers the rules of nature to the arbitrary world she encountered as a college professor.
“Within the bee world, there are nurse bees, guard bees, forger bees — there’s definitely a social order. It’s not something based on political correctness. In the bee world, you’re diving into the clear biological rules that are in place.”
The world of bees also moves you from biology into other sciences, Tammy said.
“You get into chemistry because a hive is a collection of chemicals; when you get to the beeswax, that’s a whole lesson in physics. I keep walking into more science, but it’s science that I’m fascinated by.”
Her bees also calm her.
“When I don’t understand what is happening in our world, I go out to the bees,” she said. “Bees have been around for 135 million years, so when you work with bees, it’s very reassuring that we’re going to survive this election year. We will get through this year.”
Think you’d like to give beekeeping a whirl?
“Do your homework first before ordering any bees,” advises Dr. Tammy Horn Potter, Kentucky’s state apiarist. “Go to local beekeeping association meetings for at least one year. You’ll learn the language and the concerns before spending a dime. That will give you a lot of direction and homework.”
Tammy, who fell in love with bees 20 years ago, initially learned about them from her grandfather. Although she spent the next decade as a college English professor, she eased into the world of bees while helping her grandfather and eventually doing research to determine how pollinator habitats could improve reforestation on surface mine sites in Eastern Kentucky.
Along the way, she became president of the Kentucky State Beekeepers Association (KSBA) and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from that organization as well as the Kentucky State Beekeeper of the Year Award.
She is the author of Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation and Beeconomy: What Women and Bees Can Teach Us About Local Trade and Global Markets.
Tammy encourages anyone interested in learning more about beekeeping to visit the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s website, Ky.agr.com/statevet/honeybee/html. There, you’ll find “Kentucky Beekeeping – A Guide for Beginners” and links to KSBA, the American Beekeeping Federation and other organizations. The website also includes a directory of local beekeeper associations in Kentucky.
Beekeeping attracts as many women as men these days, Tammy said. About 92 percent of beekeepers are hobbyists, with equal numbers of men and women.
“It’s been insane to see that change in the past 20 years,” she said. “It’s been fun.”