Army Veteran Eric Grandon had multiple deployments to Iraq over the course of a two-decade career. Retiring in 2005, he started facing bouts of depression, reaching a low point in 2013. Then, he found something that brought back his adrenaline rush like he had in the military, connecting him with fellow Veterans and giving him purpose.
“The first time I went into the hive, it was like magic,” he said. “All the anxiety, the outside noise, it all quit.”
That road to quiet the outside noise took some time. Grandon was the first person signed up in West Virginia’s Warriors to Agriculture program, now Veterans and Heroes to Agriculture program. He started attending classes in 2014, but he said it took some time to gain a comfort level.
“For two years, I didn’t go in the hive,” he said. “Thankfully, they survived.”
Each colony has about 40-60 thousand bees. In his first year, Grandon had two colonies. He expanded to 18 the next year and now has around 115 colonies. In addition to taking his mind off war memories, Grandon now sells honey, pollen, wax and propolis.
Additionally, Grandon now trains fellow Veterans on beekeeping, totaling more than 700 the past several years.
VA beekeeping program
Valerie Carter, a recreational therapist at the Manchester VA Medical Center, started a beekeeping program two years ago. She knew a Veteran’s wife who was a beekeeper and said that her initial motivation was to find a therapeutic outlet for Veterans.
Carter arranged for installation of two beehives onsite, using a grant through the VA FARMS program. In 2019, she had a dozen Veterans in the program who went in weekly to extract honey. Even though COVID-19 stopped in-person meetings in 2020, she continued the program over VA Video Connect.
Veterans told her that they had improved social connections, along with decreases in post-traumatic stress and depression. One Veteran said he worked with his VA team to reduce mental health medications and visits to his therapist.
According to Carter, the COVID-19 pandemic definitely put a strain on the 2020 program because Veterans weren’t physically at the medical center. However, she noticed Veterans still held each other accountable over the VA Video Connect calls. When Veterans asked about another Veteran who missed a session, Carter opened up a second session.
“Brings me back to now”
Vince Ylitalo is one of the Veterans in the Manchester program. A Concord resident, Ylitalo served more than 38 years in the Army Reserve. He completed two tours in Iraq from 2003-2005 and 2009-2010.
When Carter called him about the program, he joined, saying “I’ll try anything once.” From there, his passion took off.
“To go there and have the camaraderie again is great,” he said. “I was so taken with it.”
Ylitalo’s new-found passion didn’t stop with the VA program. He now has a hive with his sister.
“It brings me back to now,” Ylitalo said. “I’m not fighting in Iraq. It’s me and them. Putting on the suit knowing I’m going (to the hive), I’m psyched for that day and a few days after.”
Ylitalo said he personally benefits from bees, but admitted it takes some courage to start.
“It’s not for everyone,” he said. “Bees are scary. I’ve been stung before.”
However, the fear also gives Ylitalo an adrenaline rush – something that replaces his wartime experience in a safer environment.
“It puts that ‘fight or flight’ back in,” he said. “It’s calming for me.”
For Ylitalo, working with other Veterans is one of the greatest takeaways from the course.
“When it’s face-to-face, elbow-to-elbow, it’s good,” he said.
Advice for other Veterans
Both Grandon and Ylitalo advised other Veterans to find a training program in their local area. Both also admitted that the cost getting into beekeeping isn’t cheap. Grandon advised starting two colonies, which can range from $600-$800 for all the materials. Two colonies allow a beekeeper to compare and make sure both are healthy.
Grandon typically starts working on his farm during March or April, when the weather is 50 degrees during the daytime. When he starts, he said it’s like group therapy.
“It’s like the military,” he said. “It’s so systematic. There’s such harmony in the hive, just like a unit. Everyone’s on the same mission and has the same focus.”
If Veterans can afford the startup cost or find a program that helps fund it, Grandon said Veterans should consider trying it.
“Give it a shot,” he said. “You never know what’s going to help until you give it a try.”
How to start
Beekeeping is not a nationwide VA program, but VA does offer it at select locations. Veterans should check with their local recreational therapist to see if a program is in their area. In addition to VA programs, many nonprofits offer support for Veterans to get into beekeeping.
Heroes to Hives offers a Veteran program. Dr. Adam Ingrao, himself a Veteran, offers a nine-month program online. Veterans throughout the U.S. can participate in the online portion of the course. Deadline submission is Feb. 28. This program is provided free to all Veterans, Reservists, National Guard, active duty personnel and dependents of those individuals.
For 2021, on-ground instruction will take place at the following locations (note COVID restrictions may prevent some or all on-ground sessions in 2021):
Michigan (offered by Michigan State University Extension): Benton Harbor, Hickory Corners, East Lansing, Novi, Newberry, and Escanaba (students outside of Michigan are welcome to travel to these workshops).
Missouri (offered by the University of Missouri Extension): Warrensberg.
Minnesota (offered by the University of Minnesota): Minneapolis and Rochester.
Nebraska (offered by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln): Lincoln.
Watch the Heroes to Hives program
Farmers Veterans Coalition, an 18,000 strong organization
West Virginia’s Veterans and Heroes to Agriculture
About VA FARMS
In 2018, Congress directed VA to create a pilot program that provides Veterans with agricultural vocational training and mental health care services from licensed providers.
In response, VA’s Office of Rural Health partnered with several VA program offices to establish the VA Farming and Recovery Mental Health Services (VA FARMS) program at nine designated VA medical centers.
VA FARMS uses agritherapy, an approach that incorporates mental health care and services with agricultural vocational training, to support Veterans’ behavioral and mental health needs.