These veterans have found an after-duty mission: beekeeping

On a warm summer morning, Michael Moore and Charlie McMaster don their protective suits and veils to inspect the health of Moore’s four new beehives. The white boxes are at the fence of Moore’s fifteen acres outside of Evant, a small hamlet northwest of Fort Hood. Here, on this virgin land, Moore plans to embark on a second career in agriculture after his impending retirement from the military. A steady breeze blows down the treeless slope until it reaches a cluster of pecans near the beehives. Above us, flat-bottomed clouds hang motionless in the sky.

The pair approach a beehive and McMaster, a retired army colonel and director of the Texas Beekeepers Association, removes the cover. With a gloved hand, he carefully sets aside a Swiffer pad—a DIY defense against destructive hive beetles—and lifts one of the frames to reveal a bulge of gold comb. The bees have started “pulling out”, putting wax on the foundation of the frame and building it into cells. In the center of the frame, those hexagonal cells have a rich cinnamon color; they are what beekeepers call covered brood, cells containing eggs laid by the queen and sealed with a top coat of wax. Nearby, gold cells contain capped honey. At the bottom is a group of cells filled with thick white larvae.

Moore, a slender man with a thin, tanned face, peers into the box. Behind his veil, his gaze is intense, a feeling enhanced by horn-rimmed glasses. As a novice beekeeper, he knows enough to interpret the capped brood and larvae as good signs. “So the queen is out there somewhere.”

McMaster nods, his veil rising and falling. “This is primitive. You’ve got cut honey, you’ve got cut offspring, you know the queen’s in there and she’s lying.’

A buzz makes the air thicker. Alert to the intruders, bees begin to emerge, shooting and buzzing while McMaster and Moore are at work. A few curious explorers land on their suits and veils, but the men ignore them. They move slowly and methodically from hive to hive, judging each for evidence that the queen is still laying and no pests have entered. The two are linked through Hives for Heroes, a Houston-based nonprofit that helps veterans keep bees by pairing them with experienced mentors. The project addresses two disparate issues: the mental health risks veterans face when they retire from service and the declining honeybee population. The project was launched in 2018 by Marine Corps veteran Steve Jimenez, a Houston native whose rough transition to civilian life was transformed by beekeeping. . About a quarter are in Texas and have hives in cities, including San Antonio and Houston, and in smaller towns, such as Stephenville and Blue, near Elgin. Another 276 newbee veterans have signed up and are waiting for mentors in their area.

Beekeeper and Air Force veteran Stan Gore (left) and Hives for Heroes founder Steve Jimenez observe bees at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in early 2022. Thanks to Hives for Heroes
Hives for Heroes manages bees in their corporate apiary, TechnipFMC.
Hives for Heroes manages bees at its corporate apiary, TechnipFMC. Thanks to Hives for Heroes

Around 2006, American beekeepers began reporting a troubling observation: In some hives, most worker bees disappeared almost overnight. The phenomenon, now called colony collapse disorder, has been linked to pesticide use, invasive pests and parasites, and climate change. An annual survey by the nonprofit Bee Informed Partnership has documented an average annual loss of nearly 40 percent of colonies across the country since 2011.

Hives for Heroes aims to increase the number of qualified beekeepers who can herd bee colonies, thereby helping to increase the number of bees. During the first year of the relationship, most couples meet at the mentor’s bee garden (Moore and McMaster are an exception). Each veteran purchases a suit, gloves, and veil—a $150 investment that Jimenez says helps participants engage in the experience—but works with the mentor’s bees and gear, significantly reducing startup costs. As the veterans follow their mentors, they learn how to measure a hive’s health by tracking the queen’s activity level and laying pattern. They check for pests and parasites and provide treatment. In the dry summer months, they can offer supplemental sugar syrup if the nearby nectar sources run out. After the first year, the mentor often gives the new beekeeper a “split,” a portion of the bees from a hive that feeds the mentee as it grows into its own colony. Some of the first veterans to join Hives for Heroes as newbies have now become mentors themselves.

The connection between bees and veterans goes back at least to the First World War. During the war, sugar rationing stimulated the demand for honey as an alternative sweetener. When some men returned from battles with disabilities, the federal government created custom beekeeping vocational training programs to help them take advantage of the booming honey market.

Over the past decade, several groups have revisited this theme. In 2015, Army veteran Adam Ingrao co-founded Michigan-based Heroes to Hives, an intensive beekeeping education program that positions beekeeping as a way for veterans to protect the nation’s food security by protecting its pollinators. In the same year, the University of Minnesota began a program that offers Bee Veterans beekeeping workshops complete with mindfulness techniques. Some Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers offer beekeeping instruction through a program that introduces veterans to agriculture as both a career opportunity and a mental health benefit. Ingrao is collaborating with the VA on a study into the therapeutic potential of beekeeping for people coping with trauma.

When veterans leave the military, they face an abrupt and dramatic culture change. Those interviewed for this story describe leaving a highly structured life in which they lived, worked, and sometimes risked their lives with a close-knit group of comrades. In the civilian world, veterans may be out of step with colleagues and loved ones who have not shared that experience. Younger military retirees can have a hard time finding second careers, especially if they have service-related injuries or trauma. These challenges can lead to despair: The Department of Veterans Affairs found that in 2019, the most recent year for which data was available, an average of 17 veterans died by suicide each day. Veterans died by suicide at a rate more than 50 percent higher than that of the equivalent civilian population.

“If the military is all you ever know, then you have no direction when you get out of the military,” explains Moore. “Programs like Hives for Heroes are support systems for veterans to reduce the potential for suicide by making people feel like they belong.”

Jimenez’s experience leaving the Marines in 2011 was rocky. After serving in eighteen countries as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, the tenor and cadence of civilian life felt strange. How could he talk to his parents, sister, or husband about what he had seen? He was professionally successful as a business consultant, but felt deeply depressed and struggled to envision a viable future. He turned to alcohol to cope.

Then a friend in Houston invited him to visit some urban beehives. When the beekeeper discovered a beehive, the residents swarmed out to investigate. When bees landed on his pack, Jimenez had no choice but to stay calm and tune in his self-critical inner monologue—an exercise he now calls mindfulness. “It completely changed my way of thinking because I was no longer focused on myself,” he said.

Jimenez threw himself into beekeeping, which, along with therapy, helped him regain his senses. “You’re taking care of something bigger than yourself,” he says. “You actually have a responsibility about it; you do this with your friends, and all of a sudden you think, ‘Man, I’d rather do that than go to the bar.’ Now you’re in your backyard, now your kids are asking questions, now your partner wants to help, and all of a sudden you’re creating a healthy family, which ultimately creates healthy communities.”

Hives for Heroes wants to offer its novice beekeepers the same benefits. The project responds to veterans’ desire to serve – they help the environment and some volunteer to move unwanted colonies from walls and trees – and could lead to a new career. (While not all beekeepers harvest honey, some make it their hobby.) The mentor beekeeper—sometimes a fellow veteran, often a non-veteran citizen—is a supportive presence and a connection to the larger beekeeping community. For some war veterans, the element of danger is an appealing challenge. And all participants develop bee-garden mindfulness out of necessity. If they rush or their mind wanders, they are more likely to get stung.

The newcomers who join Hives for Heroes defy easy categorization. They are men and women, with and without disabilities, from various branches of the military. Some served for a few years, others for decades. Some saw fighting. Moore, 58, worked in music education before joining the military as a trombonist in a divisional band. He became a non-commissioned officer and served as an executive officer for a divisional band of Fort Hood while deployed to Iraq in 2009, before becoming a company commander for several bands in the United States. For Moore, Hives for Heroes is primarily a training opportunity for his post-military career; in addition to selling real estate, he wants to harvest honey (unlike most new bees, he invested in his own bees and hives) and add chickens, goats, and a truck yard to his land. Moore was never in combat and he expects a smooth shift back to civilian culture. But he remembers the musician in one of his units who retired after twenty years of military service and, suddenly detached, took his own life.

“For me, Hives for Heroes plays a different role than it does for someone who has been in combat and has trauma,” said Moore. “I was interested because it has a military connection and it’s a service to others.” Once his apiary grows, he plans to share his experience and his bees with a veteran who is struggling.

At Moore’s beeyard in Evant, McMaster slides the frames back into the last beehive. The sky has calmed down; the slow, deliberate movements of the men have calmed the bees.

“I don’t see any problems,” says McMaster. “You have a few small hive beetles, but nothing that cannot be dealt with. You have a hive that might be a little light, and we might want to re-king it later. But all hives are good.”

He covers the box and under the pecans the two soldiers step out of their bee suits. The work continues inside the cabinets.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide or has mental health problems, call 988 to reach the National Suicide and Crisis Helpline.

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