Bootcamp teaches beekeeping basics to veterans

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men in beekeeping suits
Michael Brooker examines a bee hive frame, looking for the queen, as Steve Wuebbles looks on, at the July 12 Bee Bootcamp workshop, in Moon Township, Pennsylvania. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. — “It’s been a roller coaster of a year,” Steve Repasky said. He’s referring to the five new bee hives at Forever Heart Farm, not the global pandemic or any of the other chaos 2020 brought.

“But the good thing is, you’ve seen a lot of stuff that can go wrong,” he continued.

Repasky, president of the Pennsylvania State Beekeepers Association, is instructing a small group of military veterans gathered at the farm for a Bee Bootcamp workshop.

This bootcamp is more casual than the one the students went through to begin their military careers. But it still requires focus and presence of mind.

Wearing protective jackets, hoods and gloves, the men take apart the first bee hive section by section under the watchful eye of the two instructors. This is the first time the students are handling the hives on their own.

One student takes notes and occasionally blows smoke onto the hive to keep the bees calm. Another carefully pulls out frames and hands them out. They’re looking for the queen.

The Bee Bootcamp is an eight-month program teaching beekeeping basics to veterans. It was put together by the PA Veteran Farming Project/Troops to Tractors.

The program is a combination of online education, through Michigan State University Extension’s Heroes to Hives program, and monthly workshops at Forever Heart Farm. Rob Mowery, owner of Forever Heart Farm, is a U.S. Navy veteran and a budding beekeeper himself.

“I started doing bees when I bought the farm three years ago,” he said. “I’ve had some success with it, but I still have a lot of learning to do.”

Bee benefits

This is the first year for the Bee Bootcamp program in western Pennsylvania. It’s based on the Heroes to Hives program, created by a U.S. Army veteran, Adam Ingrao, in Michigan, in 2015. He found comfort in beekeeping as he transitioned back into civilian life after leaving the Army.

It gave him a new way to serve his country, by cultivating a critically important pollinator, and a new mission to focus on.

“Bees are a little bit out there as far as an agricultural endeavor,” Ingrao told Farm and Dairy. “Venomous insects are not what people usually gravitate towards. That heightened risk — that really speaks to a lot of veterans. It’s familiar to a lot of us. And the discipline, when you’re at a beehive, you have to be present with the bees.”

Ingrao and his wife, Lacey, wanted to see if other veterans could benefit from beekeeping as Adam had. They started hosting classes at their farm, in Lansing, Michigan.

The program was initially open only to Michigan residents, but it expanded last year to include out-of-state participants. Heroes to Hives has 476 participants registered in 2020.

There are 10 veterans participating in the Bee Bootcamp in Pennsylvania. They have access to online lectures and other resources, and once-a-month hands-on training at Forever Heart Farm.

The Greater Pittsburgh Disabled American Veterans chapter 8 sponsored the program, allowing them to purchase bee suits, hives and “nucs,” small honey bee colonies used to start new hives.

Learning curve

The queen is located for the first hive. That’s a good thing. Now, they can test for the dreaded varroa mites, part of the lesson for the day.

Bob Tatro, another instructor and an Army National Guard veteran, swirls bees around in a rubbing alcohol solution to see how many mites fall off.

The mite load in this hive is pretty high, so they treat it. Then, they move on to check the other four hives.

All things considered, the hives are doing much better than they were earlier in the summer.

“A month ago, everything was cattywampus,” Repasky said. Some hives didn’t have queens. They placed some virgin queens in while some hives requeened themselves.

Steve Wuebbles, a U.S. Army veteran from Hookstown, Pennsylvania, said his wife bought bees a couple years ago. They’ve been doing well without much care, which Wuebbles realized now was probably due in great part to good luck.

“What I’ve learned is that I don’t know anything,” he said, of the bootcamp.

It’s been a lot to take in for novice beekeepers. Starting with new hives can lead to a lot of challenges, Repasky said.

“It’s like throwing out an algebra problem in a simple math book,” he said.

Beekeping is often romanticized, but this is giving the students a realistic view of everything that could happen and how to deal with it.

“You can look at beekeeping as a game,” Repasky said. “There are infinite levels you have to beat. Every level you beat, you gain another level of confidence, another level of success and you get another goal.”

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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