Bee program helps veterans find peace

Larry O'Connor
The Detroit News
Marine Corps veteran Tom Kusar holds a frame removed from a hive box covered with honey bees. Kusar is being coached by Adam Ingrao (in background), who runs Heroes to Hives, a program that uses beekeeping as a therapeutic and entrepreneurial tool for returning veterans.

Correction: Andrew Hobbs is global director of Ford's Environmental Quality Office. His last name was incorrect in an earlier version of this story. 

One wears a uniform, carries a weapon, answers to a supreme commander and is obsessed with completing the mission.

The other served in the military.

A bee and a veteran share a lot in common, which is at the heart of Heroes to Hives, a Michigan State University Extension program started by U.S. Army veteran and agricultural entomologist Adam Ingrao three years ago.

Heroes to Hives teaches beekeeping to returning veterans, which is designed to be both therapeutic and entrepreneurial.

“The thing about beekeeping, agriculture, all of those things, is it allows you to feel like you are serving something greater than yourself,” said Ingrao, who has a Ph.D. and is a veteran liaison at MSU. “The way I think about it is basically you have gone from ensuring the security of the United States to now ensuring the food security of the United States.

“You are still serving a mission greater than yourself, and it’s giving back to your community just like you did when you were in the service.”

Hands-on sessions and workshops take place at the Kellogg Biological Station Bird Sanctuary in Augusta, Mich., and MSU Extension facilities in Chatham (in the Upper Peninsula), Traverse City, Saginaw and on the university's main campus in East Lansing. Heroes to Hives is also offered online.

Through a partnership with Ford Motor Co., which has launched its own beekeeping program at World Headquarters in Dearborn, Heroes to Hives will be expanding to a company-owned facility, the 882-acre Cherry Hill Farm in Washtenaw County, starting in 2019.

During the first year, 15 of 45 applicants were accepted into the nine-month program.

“We had no idea what we would be able to take on,” said Ingrao, whose enrollment has since been opened to all veterans and expanded to include their spouses.

Working with nature's winged warriors unraveled a mix of emotions and memories from former military members in the program during that first year, said Ingrao, who struggled with depression himself after being discharged from the U.S. Army in 2004.

“We had two particular students who had seen a lot of combat, and being able to see them open up over the context of the beehives was really amazing,” said Ingrao, who used his Lansing area home's living room as a lecture hall and kitchen as a lab where students studied bees and insects in that first year. His woodshop became a workshop where students would build hives.

“Having frank discussions about people in combat … One of the people I worked with had been shot down twice. They were out in the aprium (hybrid fruit) area, and they could hear two Hueys off in the background, and he immediately looked up and we started talking about what that meant to him. He basically opened up about what that experience was like.

“At the end of the class, we had a honey harvest. One of the student’s partners comes up to my wife (Lacey) and said, ‘I don’t know where he would be if not for this program.’”

Nick Kaminski, a former U.S. Marine who saw combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, can’t explain the tranquility the buzz from beekeeping provides.

Kaminski, who has participated in the program, operates Hickory Tree Farm Apiaries in Kent City, Mich., which is about 20 miles north of Grand Rapids. The farm specializes in extracted honey, but next year, Kaminski hopes to sell queen bees, honeycomb and “other treats.

“It’s definitely a reward-based feeling and there is quite certainly a calming effect to it,” said Kaminski, a staff sergeant who served with Charlie Battery 1st Battalion 12th Marines in Hawaii. “I can’t quite, I guess, accurately describe to anybody in a way they would understand it, because at the end of the day, this is keeping of a venomous insect, and it may be difficult for some people to understand how or why that might be calming, but there’s a lot to it.”

Bees have a way of keeping their minders in the present, Ingrao said. The insect will sting if it feels the person nearby is not harmony with it.

Thomas Kusar, who runs Kusar Farms with Marie Jaegers, has been stung at least 40 times. Jaegers estimates she's received 20 to 30 bee spears.

Kusar served in the U.S. Marines as a helicoptor repairman; Jaegers in the U.S. Army as a combat medic. The couple graduated the Heroes to Hives program.   

"I got stung this Saturday. I mean it's like, 'Oh damn. That hurts,'" said Kusar, whose Fowler, Mich.-based farm will increase from three to 14 hives next year, thanks to a grant from the Farm Veterans Coalition. 

Inagro joins Tim Buisch and Cormac Wright, who oversee Ford Motor's bee program.  Adam Ingrao runs Heroes to Hives, which is a program uses beekeeping as a therapeutic and entrepreneurial tool for returning veterans.  Ingrao is a U.S. Army Veterans Liaison and Agricultural Entomologist in the Michigan State University Extension Office.  He runs an urban garden and keeps bees in a downtown Lansing neighborhood.  (Dale G.Young/Detroit News) 2018.

For combat veterans, a sting can be a jarring reminder to shift their focus to the here and now.

"I think through the context of beekeeping, we are able to get out of those memories," said Ingrao, who was discharged from the U.S. Army in 2004 after severely injuring his ankle. "So, if I have a bad combat experience that I am constantly reliving, that time in the bee apiary is not about reliving those experiences, it's about being present with that organism right now.

"That is something that I harp on a lot: 'If you are not here, if you are not being present with this organism, they are going to let you know, and the way they are going to let you know is they are going to sting you." 

This year, 108 veterans and spouses took part in Heroes to Hives. As the program has grown, sponsors such as AT&T Foundation and GreenStone Farm Credit Services have jumped in with support.

Workshops this year included ones focusing on beekeeping's therapeutic attributes.

One session involved the use of yoga and meditation through interacting with nature’s honey producers. Another centered on apitherapy, which entails the use of bee stings to treat arthritis and other ailments.

About 30 percent of students attend onsite courses while the remainder prefer the online version due to the driving distances involved, Ingrao said.

For instance, Kaminski commuted an hour-and-a-half to take part in classes at Kellogg Bird Sanctuary. His spouse, Nicole, a veterinarian technician, took Heroes to Hives online.

Those hardships are why Ford pledged involvement is critical, Ingrao said. With the expansion to Washtenaw County, Heroes to Hives will expand to southeast Michigan where a good portion of the state's 608,000 veterans reside.

Andrew Hobbs, global director of Ford's Environmental Quality Office, believes Heroes to Hives checks off two major items on the automaker’s list: helping the environment by assisting urban farmers and lending a hand to veterans.

"What we learned was that this beekeeping type program was hugely beneficial to the disabled veteran community in terms of PTSD and that was their focus and how they could deal with it," Hobbs said.

"So what better combination then you know dealing or providing the opportunities with our local veterans to come and manage our hives with us."

Twitter: @larryo1961