The “Bee Heroes America Program” teaches veterans a new skill while providing recreational therapy for those dealing with recovery from a slew of issues such as PTSD.

The “Bee Heroes America Program” teaches veterans a new skill while providing recreational therapy for those dealing with recovery from a slew of issues such as PTSD. (Cascade Girl Organization/Facebook)

(Tribune News Service) — Braving smoky skies for some time outdoors, a small band of beekeepers worked in unison on a recent morning, checking in on their tiny charges near an open field on the back side of the VA Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center in White City.

Donning white suits and beekeeping hats, they patiently and calmly waited for instructions on the morning's work while making sure the hives were properly shaded and that all seemed well with the half-dozen boxes on site.

A class offering by the Phoenix-based Cascade Girl Organization, the "Bee Heroes America Program" has a multi-faceted goal.

Furthering the mission of Cascade Girl, it helps bees by teaching beekeeping to people in the community. For the veterans, it teaches a new skill while providing recreational therapy for those dealing with recovery from a slew of issues such as PTSD.

Cascade Girl President Sharon Schmidt started the classes last year for veterans at the facility, first offering an online component and launching the hands-on version in May.

Air Force veteran Sparkle Herink quietly waited for instructions on disassembling the hives Thursday morning.

Getting her beekeeping suit and hat ready to put on, Herink was eager to check on the hives, including at least one recently rescued swarm, and chat with fellow beekeepers. Herink said she "knew nothing about beekeeping" last May when she saw a newsletter advertising the chance to learn.

"They did an online course for us veterans last May. It was an hour-long session, once a week, to teach us some of the basics that we would need to know," she said.

"We had a book and everything. I had some reservations. I was really scared about the bees at first, but we have the suits and everything and they taught us that the bees don't really want to hurt us. They're just busy working."

Herink said the summer's sessions have included hive setup, providing shade, caring for the hives, swarm rescue and harvesting.

"It's been really fun to watch and be a part of," she added. "I'm excited to keep doing it."

Paul Davitt, a board member for Cascade Girl and a beekeeper for nearly a decade, checked in with everyone and presented a kit to allow participants to check bees for mites.

Along with teachers Davitt and Patti Carothers, Schmidt explained the monthly mite-testing process.

"What we're doing today is a test to see what the condition of the bees and brood is on the interior, and we'll be making some decisions based on what we find out," Schmidt said.

"We'll basically shake off about 300 bees into a little basin, swirl them around and pour them into a jar that has powdered sugar in it. The process will take the mites off the bees, which is beneficial because the mites will actually try to kill the bees by eating their blood and infesting them. The goal is to figure out what the mite load is and decide if they need treatment."

Davitt, along with recreational therapist Chad Burger, helped Herink and others open the hives and take a look at frames inside. Herink smiled as Davitt pointed out a queen bee and handed her a frame to observe.

Davitt said it was rewarding to share beekeeping with veterans.

"More and more people are getting interested in beekeeping. It's like the backyard-chicken concept. People want to raise their own chickens. They want to do beekeeping to raise their own honey. There's not a big return, in terms of harvest, but it's a rewarding experience to be part of," Davitt said.

"It's only our first year, so we've been putting the pieces together as we go and seeing what works. We're hoping to have even more people next year and to get everything more established."

Davitt said the logic from a "therapeutic approach" is simple, noting, "Besides learning about beekeeping, recreational therapy is the goal. Conceptually, when you work the bees, you're supposed to slow down and take it easy, so those are the basic concepts."

Burger said the veterans' facility was grateful for the chance to bring beekeeping to its veterans.

"Kind of wherever you're coming from, it definitely involves mindfulness. You have to pay attention to what you're doing," he said.

"If you're holding a frame with thousands of bees on it, you're really not thinking about anything else in that moment. You're not worrying about anything else. You have to be completely present."

Research and technical jargon aside, Schmidt said, the benefits to learning about, and caring for, nature are a no-brainer.

"We don't have any data to suggest that this is therapeutic. What we do have is that we know that veterans want to connect, ideally, to the environment," Schmidt said.

"So the kinds of benefits that arise from being outside and participating in something like this are connection to community, being involved in something that is life-giving, being involved in something with other veterans without any particular pressures, life skills … and a sweet treat at the end."

Herink said the beekeeping had proven rewarding. Out of the military since 2000, she said she was grateful for opportunities to connect with nature and participate in meaningful activities.

"I'm just so thankful they have programs like this for us veterans," she said.

"The beekeeping is really fun and feels like something I could take with me … maybe do it on my own one day and share it with others."

For more information or to donate to the program, see

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