Army vet finds purpose staying busy with bees

May 9, 2019

When military veterans leave the service, many of them struggle with their return to civilian life. Adam Ingrao was no different.

Adam was in his early 20’s when he joined the Army right after 9/11. He completed training to be a Patriot Missile Controller but just before deployment, blew out his ankle in a training accident.

“It was an injury that could have probably been dealt with in an appropriate manner, but unfortunately was misdiagnosed by the doctors in the Army, and ended up turning into a permanent disability,” he says.

Adam was devastated. He came from a military family and didn’t know what else to do. At 25 years old, he was discharged from the Army.

“It went from having all my battle buddies, to me being back home living with my parents again, and all my battle buddies are in Iraq and Afghanistan fighting, and that’s where I wanted to be too,” he says.

Depression soon set in and Adam struggled to find purpose in his life.

Then in 2009, he decided to use the GI Bill to go back to school. He went to California Polytechnic State University to study agriculture and plant science. Adam took a course in beekeeping during his first semester there, which he says changed his life.

“I remember the first day I came home from that first beekeeping experience,” he says. “I was just ear to ear with smiles, and I just knew this was what I wanted to do.”

He says beekeeping helped him switch from the fast-paced lifestyle of the military to a more normal, mindful pace.

“You have to slow down, because if you don’t slow down – the bees are going to let you know you’re moving too fast and they’re going to sting you,” he says with a laugh.

A sense of mission

Adam Ingrao examines a beehive at MSU's Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station, on Old Mission Peninsula in Traverse City.
Credit Dan Wanschura / Interlochen Public Radio

During a sunny morning on Traverse City’s Old Mission Peninsula, Adam Ingrao prepares to check on some brightly painted honey bee hives. After years of schooling, he's now an agricultural entomologist and veteran liaison at Michigan State University.

“So one of the first things that I always like to do as we’re getting in here is to evaluate what’s going on in this colony,” Adam explains as he opens a hive. “So this colony made it through the winter, and [...] we’re going to take this one colony and turn it into a couple of them. We’ll do that here in a couple weeks.”

Adam says when he works with bees, he feels inspired by a sense of mission — similar to how he felt when he was in the military. He needs the bees, and it turns out, the bees need him. 

Bee crisis

Honey bees gather around the opening of one of Kevin Brown's beehives in Marion, Michigan.
Credit Dan Wanschura / Interlochen Public Radio

Since the 1950’s the honey bee population in the U.S. has dropped by more than half. That’s so low that about 70 percent of the country’s domesticated honey bees get shipped out to California each year, just to pollinate  almond crops.

There are many factors contributing to this, but Adam says the main cause of honey bee decline is pests and pathogens. For many years bees suffered from a disease called American foulbrood. These days it's the Varroa mite, a parasitic invasive pest from Asia.

Adam says one way to stop the bee's decline is beekeepers who are better educated. That’s why in 2015, Adam started Heroes to Hives, a program that trains military vets in beekeeping and helps them with personal wellness. 

“I don’t know if I would have been as ready to put myself out there and start training veterans around this, if I didn’t have an experience that was just transformative for myself,” he says. 

Kevin Brown, a Michigan National Guard vet who served two tours overseas, now keeps honey bees on his property in Marion, Michigan.
Credit Dan Wanschura / Interlochen Public Radio

One of Adam’s former students is Kevin Brown. Kevin lives in Marion, Michigan and completed two tours in the Middle East as a member of the National Guard. After each deployment, he struggled with anxiety and reintegrating into family life. He says Heroes to Hives offers a healing camaraderie with other vets.

“You’re focusing on the bees, all of a sudden, there might be conversation [that strikes] up,” says Kevin. “Without even you knowing it, you are letting a lot of stress go that you didn’t even know you had.” 

Adam Ingrao says beekeeping is a way for veterans to continue serving their country — by being a solution to the honey bee crisis and helping them pollinate our crops. He calls it “food security.”

“They have the dedication to duty, they have the honor, the selfless service, all of those basic skills they drill into you in the military,” Adam says. “Those are all skills that transfer exactly over to being a beekeeper.”

Heroes to Hives started with five vets at Adam’s farm in Lansing and has now expanded to over 200 in 25 states. He hopes it will continue spreading to more states in the future, and says a million new honey bee colonies isn’t out of the question.

"I think it's a lofty goal, but I think it's something we have to consider," Adam says.

This story was featured in Points North, you can find the full episode here.