When Sgt. 1st Class Ben Finch retired from the U.S. Army in March, he envisioned expanding his vegetable farm at his home at Fort Polk into a viable commercial enterprise, and he’s betting on bees to make that happen.
“Beekeeping looks like a natural way to expand our farm,” Finch said. “It’s the next step for us. It’d be nice if we can turn this from a hobby into something commercial.”
Finch was among 10 active-duty and retired military participants who attended a beekeeping workshop Saturday at the Honey Bee Breeding, Genetics and Physiology Laboratory on Ben Hur Road in Baton Rouge.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service and the Louisiana Armed Forces Foundation jointly hosted the workshop.
Researchers at the Baton Rouge laboratory work to develop elite honey bee strains. Their work includes analyzing bees from Russia, where the long winters mean only the strongest bees survive.
Mike Simone-Finstrom, a USDA-ARS research molecular biologist, said partnering with the Louisiana Armed Forces Foundation presented an opportunity to give back to members of the military.
“The idea of using agriculture and beekeeping for veteran rehabilitation is something that is actually happening across the country — West Virginia, (Washington) D.C., Minnesota,” Simone-Finstrom said. “It seems like a really great way to use our extremely specialized expertise to give back in a productive way.”
Through interactive workshops that covered everything from Beekeeping 101 and honey extraction to the pests and parasites bees encounter, USDA-ARS’ researchers invited the active-duty and retired military participants into a world perfumed with an intoxicating sweetness and capped off with a melodic buzz.
The workshop was held during National Pollinator Week, which was created nine years ago by Congress to bring attention to the declining pollinator population, according to the National Pollinator Week website.
While in the extraction room containing an overhead pipe that poured newly escaped honey into a metal bin, Army Master Sgt. Drew Graves and his wife, retired Army Spc. Jean Graves, noted honey is a valuable bartering tool because military families tend to share resources with one another.
“We also got interested in beekeeping because we figured it would be good for the environment,” said Jean Graves, who works as a civilian for the Army in Fort Polk.
Simone-Finstrom noted that beekeeping can present a money-making opportunity for veterans interested in starting a business. He said another organization, Homegrown By Heroes, works with veterans to market their products.
“Honey is one thing they’d love to add to that repertoire, but it is also going to help their gardens and their products,” he said.
Beekeeping also is therapeutic, the sponsors added.
“You’re getting out of the hustle and bustle of everyday life,” said Troy Coleman, a volunteer with the Louisiana Armed Forces Foundation. “You’re not fighting rush-hour traffic. You’re getting out in nature, looking at the flowers and the trees.”
“It totally captivates your attention when you’re working with bees,” added Bob Danka, who is an acting research leader and a research entomologist specializing in honey bee behavior and pollination with the USDA-ARS. “With almost everything I do, my mind wanders. With beekeeping, that’s not the case. You’re very focused on the here and now.”