Beekeeping as a healing intervention: Historical background, recent programs and proposed mechanisms of action
Sharon Nighorn Schmidt
Published October 22, 2020
Beekeeping for wellness has recently come to the fore as an adjunct to treatment. However, using peoples' interests in other living creatures as motivation in adjunctive mental health therapies is not new. The literature abounds with descriptions of the therapeutic value of working with animals that require training and/or care for the purpose of enhancing and enriching cognitive and emotional change in people who experience challenges. But, just as there are similarities, there are also very specific differences between caring for or training individual animals and the techniques of animal husbandry and relatedness required by a colony of bees, a super-organism; a society unto themselves.
The first part of this paper presents a compendium of some of the programs that use beekeeping as a healing mechanism or which provide beekeeping instruction as part of a program of wellness enhancement. It outlines some of the outputs of these programs and highlights observations of some of the program leaders in terms of the contributions the programs make to individuals and to the community. The second part of this paper discusses some of the reasons that beekeeping may contribute to healing.
Although no formal studies of outcomes exist, that does not minimize the importance of these programs to participants. It is clear that something good is afoot and that it awaits further scientific definition. This paper contributes to that process by identifying some of the existing and recent programs and by outlining possible mechanisms of action by which healing change may occur in persons taking part in beekeeping as part of a program of recovery from disorganizing illness such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Depression, Anxiety or Addiction. This paper does not minimize the need for traditional diagnostic or treatment assistance by a qualified mental health treatment professional. Nor does it imply that the main function of beekeeping programs must be therapeutic. However, as with most new, emerging therapies, beekeeping may not be on everyone’s radar, but it appears to have therapeutic potential and should therefore be explored..
Means, methods and materials of study:
For the purpose of this paper, this writer reviewed relevant literature, identified 10 programs recently employing Beekeeping and spoke with 9 representatives of 8 of these programs to understand their purpose and their place on a developmental timeline and to set the backdrop for this literature review. The review and discussions with program experts sought to explore the questions, 1) Where is beekeeping as a healing activity taking place? 2) As identified by programs using this modality: what are the primary diagnostic categories or problem sets identified among persons participating in this activity? 3) Do descriptions of results of beekeeping as a healing activity currently exist? 4) What are the results? The interviews were supplemented with information gleaned from articles and websites when a specific program was no longer functional or the representative unavailable.
Although all of these projects/programs have somewhat different aims and goals, the common mission is to teach beekeeping and, depending on the program, to improve human health and resilience in one way or another. The identified programs and representatives were: Paul Longwell, Mentor at the Sustainability in Prisons Project located in diverse areas in the State of Washington, Sarah Common, co-founder of Hives4Humanity (H4H) in Vancouver, B.C., Shari LaGrange-Aulich co-founder of the S.A.V.E. Farm in Manhattan, Kansas, Adam Ingrao, Ph.D., co-founder at Heros for Hives located in Michigan, Tim Doherty, Founder of Doc’s Healing Hives in Morganton, Georgia, Ginger Fenwick, co-founder of Bees4Vets in Sparks, Nevada, Valerie Carter at Veterans Administration Medical Center in Manchester, New Hampshire and both Scott Kernan, Executive Director at Blanchet House and Katy Fackler, Mentor at Blanchet House in Portland, Oregon.
Programs from which staff were not specifically interviewed are University of Minnesota which offers beekeeping lessons to Veterans, the Veterans Administration Wounded Warriors program which has hosted and taught beekeeping in the past but does not seem to presently have an active component and the Eversweet Apiaries program which was also operational in the past but does not appear to be currently active.
The history of beekeeping as a healing intervention:
The history of beekeeping as an intervention in the United States begins with the 1919 publication by the Federal Board for Vocational Education issued in cooperation with the Office of the Surgeon General War Department and Bureau of Medicine and Surgery of the Navy Department. Although its text does not specifically mention the usefulness of Beekeeping as a therapy or healing activity, there are allusions to the usefulness of beekeeping in making an adaptive recovery and increasing self-sufficiency by veterans with physical disabilities.
Since that time, beekeeping as an intervention for wellness seems to have made its next significant appearance over a full century later via the Washington Prison Program. Initiated in 2010, it is the most extensive program with 13 sites for beekeeping. The program is well integrated with the State’s Beekeeping Association and includes up to 25 inmates at a time. About 10 years ago the Olympia Bee club approached a local college that was teaching inmates to raise endangered frogs and asked them to consider a beekeeping program. Since that time they have partnered with Evergreen College and have integrated their teaching efforts which may allow students to gain college credits.
2012: Mother-daughter team Julia and Sarah Common began their program, Hives4Humanity (H4H) in Vancouver, BC. Sarah Common, the brainchild behind the effort did not start out with beekeeping in mind, but, rather as a University student with keen interest in increasing food security in one of the most impoverished areas of Canada; the lower East side of Vancouver, B.C; The H4H focus remains on establishing and growing community connections fostering self-worth, opportunity, accountability and joy through participation in work at 19 apiaries and extensive gardens.
Also in 2012, Col. Gary LaGrange (ret) had a conversation with his psychologist daughter, Shari LaGrange-Aulich who told him about the healing moments she witnessed among soldiers participating in a greenhouse project. An outgrowth of that conversation, the Beekeeping and Farming program at S.A.V.E Farm has now reached over 400 Veterans and launched a honey company while growing their farm to 308 acres. Partnering with the University of Kansas, they foresee a time in which living facilities for longer term interventions will be available and more formal outcome studies will be undertaken.
2014: Veteran Herbert Everhart of Eversweet Apiaries received the Bayer CropScience BeeCare award when as a member of the West Virginia Eastern Panhandle Beekeeping Association he harnessed the power of beekeeping to start a Veteran Program (PR Newswire, 2014). Around the same time, the West Virginia Legislature passed House Bill 4439 to support veterans’ participation in beekeeping and agriculture. Eventually affirmed and signed by the Governor, the effort affirms the sense of peace inherent in agricultural life as a key component in healing (O’Hanlon, D., 2014).
2015: The Heroes to Hives program began when veteran Adam Ingrao and his wife, Lacey conceptualized an opportunity for him to help himself and other veterans recovering from war injuries and their sequelae. They teach veterans online and in person. In 2016, the program moved to Michigan State University and has 456 alumni in 25 states. This year they have 476 participants enrolled, 343 of which are veterans and 133 of which are dependents.
2015: Inspired by Lt. Col. Mike Roche, USMC, (Ret),the Bee Veterans Apiary was established with and by the Minnesota Bee Squad in 2015 and the first season of free beekeeping classes started in 2016. The program is instructional in nature and has provided beekeeping lessons to over 100 veterans.
2017: Docs Healing Hives opened its doors in Morganton Georgia and now hosts 25 hives. Started by veteran Tim Doherty, the program was the outgrowth of his own healing experience with his sister’s beehives post deployment in Afghanistan. Since its inception, 55 people have gone through the course. Like some of the other programs, a diagnosis is not required and participants may self-refer. Presently the program has a team of unpaid volunteers which assist participants.
2018: Ginger Fenwick and her husband initiated the Bees4Veterans program after finding the previously referenced 1919 pamphlet published by the Department of Rehabilitation. Coming from a military family she and her husband realized that they could offer help to wounded warriors and accept up to 10 students each year. Partnering with the University of Nevada at Reno, the year-long program offers veterans who graduate the opportunity to keep all their gear as well as providing clean, new equipment and a nucleus hive to begin their beekeeping practice at home. Fourteen students have graduated.
2018: The Beekeeping program at the Manchester, NH Veterans Administration began. It has served about 25 veterans and has up to 10 veterans in the current group. PTSD, depression, anxiety and physical issues constitute some of the usual reasons for referral. Conducted by Activity Therapist, Valerie Carter, also a beekeeping practitioner, the goals for each individual are determined through discussion with the veteran and might include social, leisure goals and sometimes, enhancing “mindfulness” practices.
2020: Blanchet House in Portland is the most recent of the programs. This strong, Secular organization with Catholic roots started as a service club through the University of Portland Football Club in 1938. Inspired by the work of social activist, Dorothy Day, the program philosophy is to serve and support without judgment. It consists of a downtown shelter, a meal program and the Farm which can concurrently serve up to 21 men seeking sobriety. Four hives on the farm now give rise to an opportunity for men to work with a representative from the Portland Beekeeper Program. Having heard of the Hives to Heroes program, Beekeeper Katy Fackler met the director of Blanchet House in the context of her volunteer work (supported by Wells Fargo) at their Portland Kitchen. Learning of their farm outside Portland, she suggested a Beekeeping program to enhance wellness. Five individuals have participated in this new program.
Most of the programs do not require or focus on participant diagnoses and therefore no substantive link between 1) diagnoses or severity of diagnosis, 2) beekeeping as an intervention and 3) outcome can be presented here. However in some cases there are anecdotal accounts of participants being able to decrease medications and therapies, expanding their social environment, becoming more tolerant of others, expressing joy, reporting a feeling of connectedness, spouses expressions of gratitude, being able to talk about traumatic experiences, forming new friendships and feeling more confident. During semi-structured discussions, all of the program experts spontaneously endorsed certain factors they thought might be of value in healing.
According to psychologist Shari LaGrange-Aulich who collaborated with her Father, Col. LaGrange (ret) to formulate the S.A.V.E. program in Kansas, working with bees and beehives prompts certain thoughts, feelings, behaviors and skill development. In her paradigm, to participate in beekeeping, one must overcome avoidance and start by getting up out of one’s chair, out of bed or off the couch (behavioral activation). As a beekeeper one comes into contact with dirt, insects, grass, birds, flowers, trees and more (engagement with nature) and begins to care about something valued as greater than oneself; something important that requires one’s attention (sense of purpose). Beekeeping with a group of people who are like-minded introduces a special sense of connectedness (brotherhood/sisterhood) and to achieve such connection, the student beekeeper must overcome some challenges; even face venomous stings and heat (stress tolerance). To work a yard together, beekeepers who succeed develop a sense of trust and learn to work together (social cooperation). Beekeepers become part of a greater community (community acquisition and involvement) through bee clubs, online groups, farmers’ markets. In working bees they learn how to work without letting emotions rule them (emotional regulation). To do that requires being focused in the moment (mindfulness). Finally, if one successfully completes a year of honey bee husbandry there is a food reinforcement (sweet reward) which carries great value given all the hard work that was invested.
Additional factors which are not listed in La-Grange-Aulich’s paradigm may include the constructs: 1) confidence, 2) industry 3) a change in self concept as a result of moving from an identity and culture of destruction to one of construction and healing (Doherty, T., 2020 and Ingrao, A. 2020), 4) microbiological influence and 5) mirror neuron activation (hypotheses involved in both 4 and 5 to be explained in the next section).
Proposed mechanisms of action:
As with any therapeutic intervention, the mechanism of action which produces the observed results is of interest. Historically it is not unusual to use interventions that work but about which we do not have enough information to be precise about why they work. An example is talk therapy which works for about a third of the population of consumers. The mechanism is unknown and varies according to theoreticians. The drug Lithium is another example. Long used as a treatment for bipolar disorder, its effectiveness has been studied extensively but how it works is still not completely understood.
It is this writer’s hypothesis that even more is occurring in this human-insect interaction than accounted for by the factors presented above. In 1990 a group of neuroscientists (Gallese V, Fadigo, L., Rizzolatti, Giacomo, 1996) used electrodes placed in the premotor cortex of macaque monkeys to study neurons specialized for the control of hand and mouth actions and recorded electrical signals from a group of neurons in the monkey's brain while the monkey was allowed to reach for pieces of food. Having learned which neurons responded to the food stimulus, they found out that those neurons fired not only when the monkey was allowed to pick up the food but that some of the neurons would respond when the monkey simply observed a person pick up the piece of food as well. The neurons involved in this sympathetic phenomena were dubbed “mirror neurons”.
Beekeeping as a therapeutic intervention implies that participants are working on remediating mental health problems or problems in living. Something within the individual has become disorganized. In Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) the etiology of the disruption is clear; the individual dealt with a trauma perceived by them as life threatening. It is clear that one of the affected structures in the brain (the hypothalamus) has become impaired and affects the capacity to integrate new learning and go on as usual. The disorder is bimodal and characterized by periods of over and under-arousal. In depression, the etiology is not as clear but the disorder involves the near-constant experience that one’s circumstances are horribly bad and overwhelming, that they will continue to be overwhelming forever and that one is powerless to do anything about it. In clinically significant anxiety, the experience of being under constant threat, of feeling worried, vulnerable and exposed may bring about the most exquisite sense of panic, being unable to think straight, cope or even breathe. In short, in clinically significant illnesses, insults to the mind and body impose disorganization of thought emotion and function.
This writer advances the hypothesis that Beekeeping as a healing activity (therapy) exposes the participant to 30,000 to 60,000 tiny individuals engaged in highly sophisticated, organized activity. The question is whether corresponding neurons “light up” in the brain of the participant beekeeper; a “Mirror Neuron Activation” effect; and whether that activity enhances neuronal re-organization in debilitated or disorganized individuals. This leads to the question of 1) whether cross-species activity recognition naturally occurs between very different species (specifically human/insect), 2) whether it can occur and 3) whether there is anything that therapists can do to enhance that recognition. Although the study by Gallese, et al (1996) cited above implies recognition by monkeys of the implication of a food related activity carried out by humans, it is a great deal more difficult to get willing humans to allow electrodes to be implanted in their brains, therefore it may be a long, long time before we could be clinically certain of this as a mechanism of action.
A second proposed mechanism of action that could fall under the rubric of “Exposure to Nature” perhaps under a heading such as “Microbiological Influence” is exposure to beneficial bacteria. In 1989 when David Strachan first proposed the “Hygiene Hypothesis”, he postulated that lack of exposure to disease-causing bacteria during childhood might be responsible for immune inadequacy as an adult which was showing up as allergies and asthma. However, it is also arguable that lack of exposure to beneficial bacteria contributes to mental health problems.
Even as the role of inflammation was unfolding as a contributing factor or even a causal factor in mental illness, the role of beneficial bacteria advanced by Christopher Lowry gathered more substance. Results of experiments by his team indicated that the novel lipid, or fatty acid, called 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid found in Mycobacterium vaccae in soil inhibits pathways that drive inflammatory responses. At this time, heat-inactivated Mycobacterium vaccae is already licensed as an immunotherapy in China and has been evaluated as a vaccination for TB showing a robust response in mice (Gong, W., Liang, Y., Ling, Y. et al (2020). This author hypothesizes that exposure to the bacteria in soil may have a positive effect and may therefore contribute to wellbeing.
Conclusions and future directions:
After a century of relative hiatus, beekeeping is currently in use as a potentially healing intervention for persons having engaged in service to the country, for those who have sustained physical, cognitive and emotional injury, as well as persons who are incarcerated and members of therapeutic community programs and, that a cogent framework has been initiated to provide the beginning of language to describe the outcomes. It appears that construct validation would be the next step..
Literature review and discussions with selected program staff disclose that: 1) beekeeping has not yet been scientifically defined as having therapeutic value although language for what is being seen phenomenologically does exist, 2) almost no systematically collected data exists to describe and document short or long term change in participants; 3) that program funding is lacking in some cases 4) that many of the programs for former soldiers have been initiated by veterans or family members of those who served.
Further, a review of the literature and interview of knowledgeable experts indicates that explanations for positive healing outcomes for participant beekeepers exist but none of them until this paper involve an explanation of the direct, biological effect of the hive or nature.
This paper offers a proposed mechanism of action for some of the positive changes reported among participants suggesting that in addition to intra and intrapersonal factors, perceived healing may be related to 1) factors in nature such as beneficial microbes found in soil and 2) the nature of the beehive-human interaction which may exert a therapeutic effect due to the engagement of mirror neurons. These hypotheses are among many that might form a basis for research in this data-rich field.
With regard to contraindications for program involvement, it seems that there are few other than environmental allergy which was noted only in one case.
Finally, no comprehensive, scientific correlation can be made between diagnosis, intervention and outcome of participation in beekeeping programs because presently, data is not uniformly collected on these or many other relevant parameters. However, informal consensus suggests that beekeeping may facilitate therapeutic change and that this is an area for further observation and future investigation.
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Author Data: Sharon Nighorn Schmidt, RN, PMHNP, Psy.D. is a graduate of the University of Montana Master Beekeeper Program. She holds a Doctoral Degree in Clinical Psychology from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology and a Masters Degree from University of Illinois at the Medical Center in Chicago. She is a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, Licensed Clinical Psychologist and director of the non-profit, Cascade Girl Organization affiliated with the Klamath Basin Beekeepers Association.