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In the mountains of West Virginia and the plains of Michigan, two programs pioneer a novel approach to treating veterans returning from war. The West Virginia Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture program and Michigan State University’s “Heroes to Hives” program, among others across the country, work to connect military veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with honey production as a natural remedy.

West Virginia’s program covers several other fields of agriculture, but the honeybee initiative is generating the most buzz.

How PTSD Affects Veterans

Approximately 12 to 15 percent of veterans suffer from PTSD. A rate that is up to 15 times higher than that in the civilian population. 

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, PTSD can manifest as anger issues, shortness of temper, sleep deprivation, nightmares, hypervigilance, and alcohol and drug abuse. The higher rate of incidence makes the veteran population a natural pool for testing the use of honey cultivation as natural remedy for PTSD. 

A Natural Remedy And Productive Solution For PTSD

Working in a natural setting promotes relaxation, easing symptoms of PTSD, as U.S. Army veteran Ed Forney explained.  “If you’ve ever had a garden, you may go out working for ‘an hour,’ and then four hours later you realize, ‘My goodness, it’s been four hours,’ because you relax so much,” he explains to to the Beckley Register-Herald.

Forney and his wife, Cheryl, produce honey at Geezer Ridge Farms in Hedgesville, only 90 miles from Washington DC. He initially looked to start his own program but set those plans aside when he learned of the West Virginia Department of Agriculture’s initiative.  

West Virginia State Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, echoed Forney’s sentiment. He tells the Register-Herald:

I had beehives in my backyard and if I had a very stressful day, I’d get one of those 5-gallon buckets, turn it upside down and I’d watch the bees come and go . . . You wouldn’t believe the calming effect watching how those bees would struggle, laden with pollen, just to get back to the hive and distribute it into the combs.

Beehives For Well Being

The program started in West Virginia seven years ago. A second program, Heroes to Hives, started at Michigan State University in 2015.  

Adam Ingrao, the founder of Heroes to Hives, described the impact on combat veteran participants to the Detroit News. “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,” he says.

As Ingrao described, “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.” 

Traditional PTSD Therapies

PTSD therapies normally center around two major types of treatments, prolonged exposure therapy and cognitive processing therapy. Prolonged exposure therapy relies on encouraging veterans to face their fears. According to the American Psychiatric Association, avoiding the source of anxiety “reinforces the fear.” Prolonged exposure therapy conditions patients to understand that the cues causing their fear and anxiety represent no threat.

Cognitive processing therapy is a 12-step treatment plan that instructs patients to examine the thought processes surrounding negative thinking about the event. It focuses directly on the memory of the trauma, as opposed to the cues triggering anxiety in the present. 

Researchers at the Manchester VA Medical Center in New Hampshire have been looking at the potential for projects like honeybee cultivations as alternatives to established treatment. There is not yet sufficient data connecting cultivating honeybees as a natural remedy for PTSD, however, observational reports demonstrate that it has produced positive results. 

One reason that working with honeybees may be beneficial is the sound of honeybees. The program’s 12 participants explained to the Associated Press that noise from the bees helped them to clear their heads of intrusive thoughts.

Army veteran, Wendi Zimmermann, shares with the AP that, “It shows me there is a way to shut my brain down to get other things accomplished.” As Zimmermann explains, “Before, my mind would be filled with thoughts constantly and I wasn’t accomplishing daily tasks.”

Restoring A Sense Of Mission

The project may also be beneficial because it provides veterans with something to focus on and while doing good. Even veterans who show no signs of PTSD can have difficulty adjusting to civilian life. Some have made their military service the defining attribute in their lives. Being a soldier is who and what they are before anything else. Thus, when no longer in the service, some veterans find a huge void where their sense of purpose used to be. 

Rob Glover, a suicide prevention specialist from the Potomac Highlands Guild in Petersburg, West Virginia, explains why veterans struggle with a loss of identity when they leave the service.   

We know that a lot of the stressors veterans face relate to reintegration into the civilian world after being in the military, whether they were in combat or not. In fact, the largest suicide rate … was for veterans who separated from service after less than a year.

He adds, “This means more existential issues such as loss of purpose and loss of community could be driving the veteran suicide rate. We also know finding a new civilian identity is the best way forward but is very difficult to do.”

Retired Veterans Striving For Purpose

Both the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and the Michigan State University programs address that issue as well. Honey production as direct therapy and a natural remedy seems to help calmness and focus in veterans with PTSD. In the larger picture, it also provides a new mission.

“Agriculture can be a solution for veterans looking for purpose after serving their country,” Leonhardt explains.

Most of these men and women do not want to sit behind a desk. Instead, they want to feel like they accomplished something with their own bare hands. Agriculture can be that career and it’s one industry that is in desperate need of a new generation of workers.” 

The program thus has a two-fold benefit. It restores a sense of purpose by helping to build a business. Also, the droning noise created by a mass of bees has a calming effect on the mind of a person suffering from PTSD. It produces a relaxing noise like waves crashing at the beach, for instance.

Vince Ylitalo, a participant in the New Hampshire project, explained to the Associated Press that the noise allowed him to shift his focus from memories of combat in Iraq and other experiences. He says, “It helps me think of something completely different … I’m just thinking about bees.”

Promoting The Business Of Beekeeping

Over and above providing tools for production, the state Department of Agriculture’s honeybee program also helps connect honey producers to local retail outlets. With the promotion of local foods and the growth of agro-tourism, the result is not only that vets are helped, but it also helps the community.

Veterans who become producers of honey and other products could also qualify under the Small Business Association. This would allow them to provide their products to federal facilities that serve food. 

Federal law requires every federal agency to set aside a percentage of its spending on small businesses. Within that percentage, a certain amount must go to businesses in certain categories, including businesses located in economically struggling regions and businesses owned by women, minorities, and veterans.

The West Virginia program also welcomes family participation, training spouses and children in honey production techniques as well. 

Connecting Farmers And Veterans

In addition, some programs connect West Virginia veterans interested in agriculture with older farmers who can share their experience. West Virginia serves as one of four states in which the American Farm Bureau has launched a pilot version of the Farm Bureau Patriot Project to support veteran farming programs.

The state’s Farm Bureau matches military veterans interested in farming with older, experienced, and successful Farm Bureau members to be mentors. Tabby Kuckuck, West Virginia Farm Bureau Director of Public Relations, explains that the program promotes mentorship and also possibly the transfer of farms from aging farmers with no heirs to those who want to make a living in agriculture. 

Success in using honey production as a natural PTSD remedy for veterans, or even more generally connecting farmers with agriculture, could have far-ranging benefits. These programs can help to reduce the effects of trauma while providing a new mission in life, at the same time as ensuring agricultural cultivation for future generations.

As Leonhardt explains, the ultimate goal lies in saving struggling veterans’ lives while giving them hope. “Remember, twenty-two veterans take their lives every day. We owe it to them to try to make a difference.”

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