Boots to Bees: Beekeeper Teaches Veterans, Others the Craft

BECKLEY, W.Va.— The president of the Raleigh County Beekeepers Cooperative Association was inspired by his grandfather to take up the art of beekeeping.

About 18 years ago, Mark Lilly picked up some bees and hives and started into the hobby.

Now, he manages 12 hives and teaches people all over the state how to raise the little critters.

“I’m not an environmentalist, but the more I learn about bees, the more obvious it becomes that every link in the food chain is important,” Lilly said. “We’d be on a poor diet if it wasn’t for the pollination services of bees.
“We would barely have any nut-bearing trees without bee pollination. In California, 100 percent of crops are pollinated with bees. That’s a multi-billion-dollar industry. It’s fascinating to think how dependent we are on an insect.”

Even though he’s been stung a few times, Lilly stands by his sentiment that beekeeping is relaxing.
“My biggest concern wasn’t ever being stung,” he said. “It was the fear of killing bees with my lack of knowledge. I didn’t have enough information to be successful in the beginning, so I accidentally killed a lot of bees and I hate that.”

Lilly said he loves the hobby and it has a way of taking you away from concepts like “humanity” or “time,” especially when you’re literally elbow-deep in nature.

“You lose track of schedules and time,” he said. “It’s very relaxing and I’ve heard of several veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder who are becoming beekeepers.

“I know one veteran named Eric Grandon who said he probably wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for bees. His PTSD was so severe that he didn’t think he’d continue living. Now, he runs a successful agriculture business.”
The program that pairs veterans with bees is called Boots to Bees and it’s very active in the eastern part of West Virginia, Lilly said.

“This program is great because it allows people to connect with nature at their own pace,” he said. “I know a few veterans personally that started this to help their PTSD, but have grown this into a business.”

The association that Lilly leads does its best to help teach locals about how beekeeping has changed over the last several years.

“We’re going to be working with vocational programs and the commissioner of agriculture to teach students about beekeeping as an industry,” Lilly said. “We’ll be building an aviary at the Raleigh County Schools’ farm in Cool Ridge, and it will house a few hives.”

Those who want to learn about beekeeping now, there’s a class coming up on Feb. 13. The class will be each Monday for four weeks at the Raleigh County Board of Education office from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. This course will teach how to set up a hive, introduce package bees, learn about swarm prevention, inspect a hive and correct problems, extract honey and make money off of honeybees.

Pre-registration ends Feb. 6. Lilly said classes usually consist of a broad group of people, from 80-year-old men to brilliant third-grade girls. For more information about the class or the Raleigh County Beekeeping Cooperative Association, email [email protected] or call President Mark Lilly at 304-575-6114.

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