Veterans try beekeeping

Special to the Record-Eagle/Lacey IngraoOn-site hive-handling instruction in MSU’s Heroes to Hives program, which expanded from 15 participants in 2017 to 108 this year. Organizers say it could reach 200 next year.

LANSING — Michigan State University is initiating a sweet friendship between military veterans and honeybees.

Heroes to Hives teaches veterans beekeeping skills as a path to personal and financial wellness.

Adam Ingrao, an Army veteran who is an agricultural entomologist educator and veteran’s liaison for MSU, started the program in 2015 to merge his passions of working with veterans and beekeeping.

Ingrao has been involved in agriculture since he was 14 and manages bees on his Lansing community garden plot, Bee Wise Farms.

He sees the MSU course as a transformative opportunity for veterans.

“It is a healing practice,” Ingrao said. “Slowing down and being one with nature — there is a healing capacity in that.”

A big emphasis is the program’s community development aspect that leads to personal wellness and empowerment, Ingrao said.

“It’s about getting veterans together that have shared experiences and oftentimes feel isolated in society, getting them together with other veterans so that they can be part of a community that they lost,” he said.

And the program leaves participants with a strong knowledge of beekeeping, a profitable business when you know how to do it right. The vets are introduced to a strong network of industry connections.

It’s an immersive 9-month course that gives students first-hand experience dealing with bees, said Jeremy Huffman, a former Marine and a bee farmer who participated in the program last year.

“There is nothing like it in the country,” Huffman said. “As far as setting up first-time beekeepers and giving them the confidence and skill to raise bees on their own, the program is first class.”

Out of Huffman’s class of 15 students, all but one went on to their own bee farming operations.

Heroes to Hives graduates have the skills and connections to go on to commercial beekeeping operations, own their own small businesses and diversify their farm income, Ingrao said.

The bees also benefit.

This is the hardest time to be a beekeeper due to unprecedented rates of loss and fewer healthy habitats to keep bees, said Meghan Milbrath, the coordinator of the Michigan Pollinator Initiative, an MSU program that addresses pollinator-related issues.

Beekeepers report 30 to 40 percent losses in their colonies each year due to increased pests, pathogens, poor nutrition, misuse of pesticides, improper management and habitat loss, according to the Michigan Pollinator Initiative.

The Heroes to Hives course helps the sustainability of honeybees by teaching beekeepers to manage these challenges effectively.

“When you teach people about bees, the more they start to care about the issues and make changes,” Milbrath said.

And you create beekeepers rather than beehavers.

“Beehavers have bees that die every year and they just buy more over and over again,” Ingrao said. “Beekeepers buy bees once and continue to split their bees over and over again, and that is the sustainability aspect.”

Heroes to Hives produces keepers rather than havers, he said. Participants learn about hive management in lectures and hands-on hive handling.

In addition to sustaining honeybee farms, participants also learn how to preserve healthy habitats that support wild bee populations. This helps “the plight of the pollinator,” Huffman said.

The program has expanded from just 15 participants in 2017 to 108 this year. It’s on track for more than 200 next year. Ingrao said he’s excited that Heroes to Hives will accept students nationwide in 2019, an expansion made possible by online classes and additional locations in both Michigan peninsulas.

The program is fully funded by the AT&T Foundation and other private donors. Veterans and veteran family members can enroll online, and all applicants are now accepted.

As Heroes to Hives expands, it fosters a mutually beneficial relationship between veterans and honeybees, Ingrao said. Honeybees are helping veterans heal while veterans are helping honeybees survive.

Quinn Zimmerman is a reporter for Great Lakes Echo