(Tribune News Service) – While braving a smoky sky outside for a while, one recent morning a small group of beekeepers teamed up and checked in on their small loads near an open field at the back of the VA Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center in White City.
Wearing white suits and bee hats, they patiently and calmly waited for instructions about the morning’s work, making sure the beehives were well shaded and all seemed well with the six boxes on site.
A teaching offering from the Phoenix-based Cascade Girl Organization, the “Bee Heroes America Program,” has a multifaceted purpose.
It furthers Cascade Girl’s mission and helps bees by teaching people in the community beekeeping. For the veterans, it teaches a new skill while providing recreational therapy for those dealing with recovery from a range of problems such as PTSD.
Cascade Girl President Sharon Schmidt began teaching veterans at the facility last year, first with an online component and the hands-on version in May.
Air Force veteran Sparkle Herink quietly waited on Thursday morning for instructions on how to disassemble the cabinets.
Getting her beekeeper suit and hat ready to put on, Herink was eager to check the hives, including at least one recently rescued swarm, and chat with fellow beekeepers. Herink said she “knew nothing about beekeeping” last May when she saw a newsletter advertising the opportunity to learn.
“They ran an online course for us veterans last May. It was a one-hour session, once a week, to teach us some basics that we should know,” she said.
“We had a book and stuff. I had some reservations. I was really scared of the bees at first, but we got the suits and everything and they taught us that the bees don’t really want to hurt us. They’re just busy work.”
Herink said the summer sessions included setting up the hive, providing shade, tending to the hives, rescuing swarms and harvesting.
“It was a lot of fun to watch and be a part of it,” she added. “I’m excited to keep doing it.”
Cascade Girl board member and beekeeper for nearly a decade checked in with everyone and presented a kit that allows participants to check bees for mites.
Together with teachers Davitt and Patti Carothers, Schmidt explained the monthly mite testing process.
“What we’re doing today is a test to see what the condition of the bees and brood is on the inside, and we’ll make some decisions based on what we discover,” Schmidt said.
“We will shake off about 300 bees into a small basin, spin them around and pour them into a jar of powdered sugar. The process will take the mites off the bees, which is beneficial because the mites are really trying to kill the bees by using their blood. eat and infect them. The goal is to find out what the mite infestation is and decide if they need treatment.”
Davitt, along with recreation therapist Chad Burger, helped Herink and others open the cabinets and view the frames inside. Herink smiled as Davitt pointed to a queen bee and handed her a list to observe.
Davitt said it was worth sharing beekeeping with veterans.
“More and more people are getting interested in beekeeping. It’s like the backyard chicken concept. People want to keep their own chickens. They want to keep bees to grow their own honey. There’s not a big return, in terms of harvest, but it’s a rewarding experience to be a part of,” Davitt said.
“It’s only our first year, so we’ve been putting the pieces together along the way and seeing what works. We hope to have even more people next year and capture everything.”
Davitt said the logic of a “therapeutic approach” is simple, noting, “In addition to learning about beekeeping, recreational therapy is the goal. Conceptually, if you’re working the bees, you should slow down and take it easy, so those are the basics.”
Burger said the veterans facility was grateful for the opportunity to bring beekeeping to its veterans.
“Wherever you’re from, it’s definitely about mindfulness. You have to pay attention to what you’re doing,” he said.
“When you’re holding a frame with thousands of bees on it, you really don’t think about anything else at that moment. You don’t worry about anything else. You have to be fully present.”
Research and technical jargon aside, Schmidt said, the benefits of learning about and caring for nature are a good idea.
“We don’t have any data to suggest this is therapeutic. What we do have is we know that ideally, veterans want to connect with the environment,” Schmidt said.
“So the kinds of benefits that come from being outside and participating in something like this are connecting with the community, being involved in something that is life-giving, being involved in something with other veterans without any particular pressure, life skills… and a sweet treat at the end.”
Herink said beekeeping had proved rewarding. Out of the military since 2000, she said she was grateful for the opportunities to connect with nature and participate in meaningful activities.
“I’m just so thankful they have programs like this for us veterans,” she said.
“Beekeeping is really fun and feels like something I could take with me… maybe one day I’ll do it alone and share it with others.”
For more information or to donate to the program, see www.cascadegirl.org/beekeeping-for-healing-and-therapy
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