Heroes to hives: from camouflage to black & yellow

UCM Farm Hosts Beekeeping Program for Military Veterans

By Alex Wilson, '22

Photo by UCM student Lauryn Morrow

Bee on flower

Every day for eight years, Santiago Valdez woke up early to conduct important procedures as a mechanic for the 509th Maintenance Group at Whiteman Air Force Base in Knob Noster, Missouri. Today, he still wakes up at the break of dawn, not to maintain planes and other aircraft, but to manage, grow and create products for his home goods company, Raw Buzz.

Santiago and his wife, UCM alumna Julie (Kryshchendyuk) Valdez, ’17, sell high-quality handmade goods ranging from honey to wax candles to soaps made with goat milk from Julie’s family farm. Santiago and Julie’s participation in the Heroes to Hives program last spring and summer provided them with the chance they needed to learn about the craft of beekeeping in order to expand their blossoming business.

Heroes to Hives is a free program providing the opportunity for U.S. veterans from all branches of the military, their spouses and dependents over age 18 to learn the art of beekeeping. Launched by U.S. Army veteran Adam Ingrao in 2016 at the Michigan State University Extension, the program has since expanded to training sites in Minnesota, Nebraska and Missouri. In Missouri, UCM collaborates with the MU Extension to provide resources and land for an apiary at Mitchell Street Farm in Warrensburg.

Beekeepers Valdez

Julie and Santiago Valdez learned the basics of beekeeping in the Heroes to Hives program. (Photo by Linda Geist, University of Missouri Extension)


Bees in Mule Country

Nationally recognized as a Military Friendly® School, UCM is dedicated to serving active military personnel and veterans by helping them transition to both higher education and civilian life. Travis Harper, an agronomist with MU Extension who teaches the course at Mitchell Street Farm, says he was hoping for 20 or 30 students in 2021, the Missouri program’s first year. He was surprised when more than 290 veterans enrolled in the online course with optional hands-on experience; of those, more than 150 attended at least one field day in Warrensburg.

All necessary equipment, such as protective gear, is provided to members of the program. Items constructed by participants during the program, such as swarm traps, can be taken home for their personal use. To date, Heroes to Hives has spawned approximately 5,000 new beekeepers across the country who actively maintain apiaries, including Santiago.

“I learned about beekeeping through friends I had on the base,” he says. “Heroes to Hives is the right environment with the right people to learn.”

When the couple was starting their business, Julie brought to the table the value of her UCM education in business/managerial economics, while Santiago contributed what he had learned during his time in the Air Force. Santiago cited discipline, time management and the ability to work under pressure as important skills he developed during his military service.

The couple’s commitment to using organic and natural ingredients required both of them to step outside their comfort zone. Learning about beekeeping was an important part of the business plan.


Making an Impact

While Heroes to Hives teaches practical beekeeping skills like how to properly wear a protective suit, handle the hives and equipment and safely harvest the beeswax and honey, the program also highlights the importance of bees.

Beekeeping has been more vital than ever in recent years due to the decline of bee populations across the globe. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), each winter since 2006, the number of beehives has declined approximately 30% due to habitat loss, poor nutrition, disease, parasites and environmental contaminants. The USDA estimates that honeybees pollinate $15 billion worth of crops every year, so keeping them alive and healthy is important to both the economy and food accessibility.

The relationship between honeybees and the natural environment further illustrates the importance of an educated beekeeper. As the population of honeybees has decreased, so has the vast population of wild and native bee species, which may be more effective pollinators. Maintaining the balance of resources between wild bees and honeybees is important to ensuring the upkeep of both the natural and agricultural world. Responsible beekeeping is a practice with an overall positive impact on food sustainability, according to 2020 research published in the international peer-reviewed journal Science of the Total Environment. Programs such as Heroes to Hives promote environmentally responsible beekeeping.

One can rest easy knowing that many who served to protect their country are now helping to protect the nation’s food supply. While veterans are doing their part for these pollinators, the bees are also helping their keepers.

Kyle Day Beekeeper

UCM agriculture education student Kyle Day owns a beekeeping supply business and helped with the Heroes to Hives program.


Benefits of Beekeeping

For many veterans, finding rewarding career opportunities can be a struggle. Heroes to Hives is a great resource to open doors in apiculture, the profitable field of large-scale beekeeping. The program also gives them a chance to enrich their lives by building relationships with fellow veterans.

“Between the class days, field days and online classes from Michigan, you learn a lot about beekeeping and making connections,” says two-time UCM alumnus Larry Soles, ’13, ’16, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Alpha Co. 82nd Combat Aviation. “It builds camaraderie … which is something that is missing for some vets.”

Since completing the program, Larry has gotten involved in various community clubs and now operates 17 hives of his own.

Whether by teaching veterans a marketable skill, preparing them to launch their own business, providing resources to combat challenges related to PTSD or simply giving them a way to connect with a constructive community, Heroes to Hives enables these outlets through beekeeping.

Kyle Day, a UCM student studying secondary education–agriculture, has assisted with the program and can attest to that fact. His business, Sunny Day Beekeeping, offers resources for beginners, beekeeping supplies, honey, honey products and the insects themselves. Kyle got into beekeeping as a high school student through an FFA scholarship opportunity and in 2017 became the first Missouri Honey Ambassador for the Missouri State Beekeepers Association (MSBA). In fall 2021, the MSBA held its biannual conference on UCM’s campus.

“There is a lot of opportunity in beekeeping right now — on a local, state and even national level,” says Kyle. “I have always been fascinated with bugs. Around here everyone does cows, row crops; I wanted to do something different.”

Kyle met Travis when helping pour the foundation for a new agriculture classroom at Mitchell Street Farm in spring 2021. Travis invited him to collaborate with the Heroes to Hives program, providing expertise and resources for participants looking to start their own hives. Through these efforts, Kyle has connected with other bee enthusiasts like Cory Stevens of Stevens Bee Co., an expert in breeding bees with built-in defenses against disease and parasites.

For people like Kyle and Cory, beekeeping is more than a hobby; it’s an opportunity to turn a passion into a career. For Santiago and Larry, it’s another way to grow and prosper after serving in the military.

As in his military days, Larry continues to work in a team contributing to community efforts — now with a personal platoon of honeybees. In March he passed on his knowledge to the larger community as a presenter at a Johnson County Missouri Beekeepers Association workshop. Santiago has incorporated his new skills into the business he started with his wife. He continues to wake up at the crack of dawn to protect something that he holds close to his heart.

To learn more about Heroes to Hives, visit www.heroestohives.com.


Photo by Tevin Uthlaut, University of Missouri Extension



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