Teddy W. Ratliff (they call me ‘Ted’ around here), Retired Military, Bee Keeper and Owner/Uncle Ted’s Honey; Thornton, Kentucky, Letcher County:
“Elkhorn City was a good place to grow up. It was a small community, but the river was there. I lived on the river, the Big Sandy River. I drank about half of it swimming in it, fishing, and doing whatever. Fishing and hunting. That was most of the things I got into, and I still do fishing and hunting.
I could barely remember World War II, back when I was growing up. I can remember getting the coupons for coffee, and gas, and stuff like that. And people don’t understand, living now, what it was like then.
My brother would go out, and collect rubber, and leather, and things for the war effort. Any kind of metal, or anything like that he collected, and he would get a prize for collecting the most of something like that. We grew everything. If we had to eat, we grew it and raised it. We raised pigs and chickens, and had eggs, and all that. Yeah, growing up in Pike County, Pike County’s good.
[My father] was a coal miner. He started off back when [he] was, sixteen years old. They used the pony lines then. He worked for Republic Steel, all his life. He retired out of there. He was in underground mining for all his life. He was eighty-three years, when he died. About a year before he retired, a shuttle car run over his little toe, and cut it off. And that’s the only thing, really, that he had majorly [happen] in the mines. He had Black Lung, that’s not what killed him. He was a pretty healthy fellow, like most of the Ratliffs. We’re fortunate in having the health we’ve got. We’re all healthy.
Well, I seen him go to work at 3:00 and 4:00 in the morning, and not come home until dark. And it just wasn’t my bag of tea. I wouldn’t say I qualified to go in college. About five of us got together one day [while] fishing, and decided, ‘Let’s do something else. Let’s go in the military.’
We said we would go try the Air Force, and if the Air Force didn’t take us, we’d try the Navy, and if the Navy wouldn’t take us, we’d try the Army, and if the Army wouldn’t take us, we’d come back home. (Laughs) We weren’t going to go in the Marines.
Five of us went down to go in, and three of us made it. One of us had a finger cut off, and the other one had flat feet. Two of us actually went to basic training together. He lasted about six months of service, and he got out. I was the only one out of the five that really stayed for the duration, made a career out of it.
I was in the Air Force for twenty years. Come right out of high school, went in doing special weapons. I was in Vietnam [and] made three trips to Southeast Asia, during that time. In fact, I was in Thailand at the time they took the people off the embassy. I built the bombs, rockets, and the missiles that goes on the B-52’s and the planes.
I actually volunteered to go to Guam. I was stationed in Northern Michigan. I got there, and it was thirty below, and two hundred and seventy-six inches of snow that winter.
I went in, and said, ‘Where can I go to get out of here as soon as I can?’ Well, they said, ‘We can send you to Guam, you get out in about a month. But you got to know that it’s an island.’ I said, ‘Send me! (Laughs).
When I came back to the states, I was in nuclear weapons. When you’re handling them, they’re a lot safer than a conventional weapon is. It was interesting. That’s the reason I stayed for twenty years. I really loved it. I’d go back in a minute.
I’ve been all over the world, but I settled right here. My sister and her husband had a business here [and] when I retired, I had a job waiting on me. I was out of the service one day, drew unemployment one day, and went to work the next day. Been here ever since. Came here in ’79. And I got married. I met a lady here, two years after I retired, and settled down here.
I retired about four times, out of different jobs.
When I got out [of the Air Force], I ran convenience stores. I ran the Quick Marts for thirteen years. I retired from that, and went in business for myself, and I bought convenience stores. I had three convenience stores, a garage, and five tobacco stores. And I sold them, and retired again.
Then I went to work for a drug testing company, doing drug tests in coalmines and [on] truck drivers. I did that for about six or seven years. And when the coalmines went down, kindly worked it’s way out of Eastern Kentucky like it did, it kind of done me in. So I went ahead and retired [again].
While I was doing the drug testing, I got into beekeeping as a hobby. I started off with four hives and built it up over a period of time.
If you ever do anything with bees, once you start, you’re hooked. You’ll be doing them from now on, because they’re so fascinating.
I’ve got the bees back on a strip [mine] job, my son’s property, which is a good place to have it, because they’ve got plenty clover. They’ve reseeded it good in clover, and things that the bees really like. It worked out real good, and it’s built up now until it’s become a job, instead of a hobby.
I made my own label up. ‘Sweet as a mother’s heart.’
Appalachian Pride contacted the state, and they wanted a product out of Eastern Kentucky. [They] called me one day, and said, ‘Would you like to send some honey up to NASCAR?’ I said, ‘Well, yeah, I guess.’
The state agricultural department met me, and picked up the honey, and took it up to Sparta, Kentucky, for NASCAR. They featured it on the menu. They NASCAR] did a commercial.
A lot of my friends in California and Arizona seen that, people I went to school with. They said, ‘That’s got to be Ted Ratliff. They ain’t nobody else would do something like that.’ The number’s on the label, and they called me, and sure enough, they said, ‘You gotta ship me some honey. I gotta have some honey.’
(About getting stung) I’ll go in a certain time of year with just Bermuda shorts on and a short-sleeved shirt, because the bees are busy doing what they’re doing. They don’t pay no attention to you. But when you go in, and steal their honey, you suit up, because they get mad. They go to the refrigerator, and steal your food, you’re gonna get mad. And that’s what happens. You start stealing their food, they’re gonna be mad about it, so they do get a little violent then.
The bees are fascinating. They’ve got a structure, a hierarchy that they follow. We still make beehives and things as they did back in Biblical times.
We’re losing our bees. People in the United States don’t understand what’s happening with the bees. Two years ago, in the United States, we lost eighteen percent of our bees. Last year, we lost forty percent of our bees. This year, we’re on track to lose fifty percent of our bees.
If we lose our bees, you’re going to lose your fruit, and lose your nuts, because that’s what does your pollination. I’ve lost eight hives already this year.
Two years ago for forty dollars, you could buy a package of ten thousand bees with a queen in it. This year, it was ninety-two dollars for the same package. The scarcity of the bees is causing the price to go up so much.
They call it a mass hive disease, or colony collapse.
The government, about five years ago, allowed them to use insecticide, and the insecticide that they use goes inside the plant and kills the worms and bugs. It’s good for the vegetables, the corn or whatever, but what happens is, the insecticide gets into the nectar. The bees come and get the nectar to take back to the hive, and then they become disoriented. They can’t pollinate and find their way back.
They call them zombie bees. They just fly in all directions, and either birds get them, or at night they get cold and they die.
I’ll go in a hive, and I’ll have forty thousand bees in there one day. Two days later, I’ll go in there, and there won’t be nothing. They’ll be gone. I mean no dead bees, or nothing, ‘cause they didn’t come back. That’s how we’re losing them.
It’s going to take the government five more years to get that insecticide out of the system. It keeps killing these bees. The government, you know, is what done it. Europe doesn’t allow them to use that insecticide. They don’t have the problem that we’ve got.
I’ve been all over the world [and] I want to be here. People will not appreciate what they’ve got, until they’ve been to another country, and see they live off of what we throw away in this country. You wouldn’t believe it.
[Appalachia is special because of] the camaraderie, the friendliness, the kindness. If someone comes up here, like that lady that come up here, she didn’t have any money, I’d give her some [honey]. What’s it worth? I’d rather see her have it. That’s the way people are, and that’s what makes it [special] to me.
I fish and hunt. A couple of years ago, I killed a buffalo. My nephew, of course, my nephew gets me into everything, called me up and said, ‘Let’s go hunting.’ I said, ‘What are we going to hunt for?’ He said, ‘Whatever you want to kill.’ We’ll say harvest, shouldn’t say kill.
I said, ‘Well, okay. I’d like to get a buffalo.’ I’ve killed deer and stuff like that. I hope to get to elk hunt, you know, in this country, in Kentucky. And bear hunt. Got a bear in my back yard, if it gets my bees, I’ll get a bear this year. (Laughs)
We went to a game reserve. Somebody said, ‘Where’d you get a buffalo?’ I said, ‘Oh, we went out west, and killed this buffalo. We’re gonna put it in The Mountain Eagle, the local paper; Ted’s nephew goes out west, harvests eight hundred pound buffalo in big hunt.’
I said, ‘Next week, we’ll run an article in there; Petting zoo in Frankfort looking for buffalo. Anybody can find the buffalo, a reward.’ (Laughs) But anyway, we had fun with it.
(About the regional economy) It’s good to go with the environmental thing, to cut the coal out. But, you don’t put the cart before the horse. You don’t eliminate the coal, and then expect technology to catch up with it. That’s not the way it works. You know that, and I know that.
If you develop a technology, it will make the coal do better, where you don’t have the environmental problem. But that’s what happens, when you come in and just say, ‘We’re just gonna cut this business off.’ I could ask people in California, and they would say, ‘Oh, coal, it pollutes. It’s terrible. You need to do away with coal.’
I’d say, okay, the biggest polluter in the United States is cars, automobiles, and trucks. We’ll keep the coal, if you do away with the cars. Let’s see how they like it. If you want us to do away with coal, we’ll do away with coal, but you’re hurting people by doing that.
They come in here to Appalachia, the great society, they’re going to bring the people in Appalachia out of poverty. Spent billions and billions of dollars to do it, and in one sweep of the pen, you put everybody right back to square one. All that money they spent was wasted. It’s gone. Which, if they hadn’t of given it to the people, and had put it in the infrastructure back then, like roads and industrial parks like they’re doing now…
(Tourism) I don’t know. Somebody says, put something in Letcher County, in Eastern Kentucky. There’s only so many Dollywood’s in the world you can put in.“