Organic Beekeeping and Veterans: Make for a Busy Day!

In early May, veterans participating in Rodale Institute's Veteran Farmer Training Program visited the Institute's Working Tree Center (WTC) in Allentown, Pennsylvania and worked alongside resident beekeeper Mike Schmaeling. Mike has been a part of Rodale Institute’s honeybee conservancy program for the past five years using organic, treatment-free beekeeping strategies to create healthy, hardy bees that can naturally withstand disease, pests, and harsh weather conditions.

Mike Schmaeling explaining the bees' flight path to the hive to veterans

While working with Mike, the veterans learned about the importance of honeybees in organic agriculture. Honeybees are a key pollinator, responsible for the successful cultivation of more than two thirds of the 100 crop species that feed most of the world. Raising bees organically helps strengthen ecosystems and protect the future of our food.

The veterans received a lesson in beekeeping basics, including how to identify food and water sources for the hive and anticipate how far the bees will travel for food. After a lesson in the different types of man-made hives, they observed proper methods of interacting with bees, including where to stand, what to wear, how to use the requisite tools, and the necessity of staying calm. The students then assisted Mike in handling a beehive.

Each hive consists of a queen bee, drones, and worker bees. The queen is considered the most important member due to her ability to unify the entire colony. She can lay up to 1,500 eggs a day. A drone bee’s role is to mate with the queen. Worker bees assume many responsibilities, including caring for larvae and the queen, guarding and keeping the hive clean, and producing honey. The students were given a hands-on lesson in identifying the various types of bees and their roles within the colony.

Veterans Jordan and Ariel locating queen bee on hive frame during queen rearing process

The main topic of the afternoon was learning about a process called “queen rearing.” This niche skill helps treatment-free beekeepers keep hardy genetics thriving in their colonies. The veterans were able to experience this process firsthand. First, they located the queen in each hive to ensure that swarming hadn’t occurred. Swarming is a natural process that occurs when the queen abandons the hive with a large group of worker bees to start a new colony. Then, they assisted Michael with carefully removing the existing queen and introducing a hand-selected queen larvae from another colony whose hardy genetics will strengthen the colony as it grows. He hand selects queen larvae from colonies that have a high survival rate over the winter, have a low mite population, and are generally easy to handle. This selective process of queen rearing has mitigated the overall effect of mites on the hives at WTC, thus allowing Michael to keep bees without pesticides.

The veterans walked away with knowledge that can help them grow their own farms and contribute to healthier ecosystems. By managing an organic apiary, they can improve crop production, help restore natural populations of pollinators, and produce a valuable, delicious byproduct: honey.

Join the Ranks of Organic Farmers! Learn more about our Veteran Farmer Training Program here.

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