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Serving: MI

Army veteran turned beekeeper receives grant for equipment

Slideshow: Farmer Veteran Fellowship grants help veterans advance in farming.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories highlighting the Farmer Veteran Coalition and its 2021 Farmer Veteran Fellowship Fund grant awardees. The coalition awards grants to help veterans help feed the world. To read more, see Coalition grants geared to help veterans feed the world.

Michael Henson has been plagued with seasonal allergies his whole life, as well as his family. So, when a co-worker started talking about taking a daily tablespoon of natural, local, raw honey to combat symptoms, it got his attention.

He began to do some research, and found information not only on the properties of honey, but also on how to raise bees. He then took beekeeping classes, and read more articles and books. He came across Michigan State University Extension’s Heroes to Hives program, which focuses on supplying military service members and their families with knowledge, experience and a network to be successful beekeepers.

“I went through [the program] twice, and they mentioned the Farmer Veteran Coalition,” he says. The nonprofit works with military veterans in all U.S. states and territories to mobilize veterans to feed America.

The idea of starting a business brewed for a couple of years before Henson, a veteran Army specialist, bought his first beehive five years ago and began to make his own backyard honey. He then started Backyard Bees in Davison, Mich., about 10 miles east of Flint.

Henson applied for a grant from the Farmer Veteran Coalition. After an initial application went unfunded, Henson, 44, and his wife Jennifer, 41, beefed up their application with more information, further explaining processes, benefits and returns. They then requested $2,000 to buy a mini wax melter, which helps separate honey from wax cappings, resulting in more salable honey.

Their perseverance paid off. The Hensons were recently awarded a national 2021 Farmer Veteran Fellowship Fund grant from the coalition.

“It’s increased how much honey we collect by at least 10%,” Henson says. “As we get bigger, with more hives, it will allow us to harvest even more honey that would have gone to waste because we had no other means of separating it from the wax.”

Recognizing demand

When it came time to harvest their first year’s honey, the family shared pictures on Facebook. “A lot of our friends and family started asking if we had any extra honey to sell,” Henson explains. “So, we kept some for ourselves and sold the rest. That’s when we talked it over and made plans to turn it into a business.”

In the last five years, Backyard Bees has slowly expanded — as well as contracted some.

“We’ve been building our customer base and our offerings,” Henson says, adding he’s down to 10 hives from 16 last year. “Before winter, we had 16, but six died because of what I believe was varroa mites — external parasites of honeybees,” he says.

The business outgrew their backyard. They started exploring options for other placements. “The bigger commercial beekeepers will charge farmers to place bees on their property,” he says. “We’re not big enough for that, but we put the word out on social media that we were looking for property to host our hives,” he says. “I think we have a two-page waiting list now.”

Henson has a simple contract with host families, exchanging the use of their property for a pound of honey for every box of honey pulled from each on-site hive.

Before the six hives that died, he had three off-site hosts. “We removed the one location where the hives died until we can figure out exactly what the problem was,” he says. “When we rebuild, we will be putting them back.”

Army service

Between his junior and senior year of high school, Henson joined the Army and spent the summer of 1996 in basic training. His permanent duty station was in Fort Hood, Texas, serving as a combat engineer working to clear minefields, build bridges and other engineering assignments.

Three years in, he was deployed to Bosnia for six months on a peacekeeping mission. “It wasn’t quite like what soldiers went through in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it wasn’t without danger,” he says. “It was an eye-opening experience to see what other countries are going through.”

While overseas, he reenlisted for another three years and went through additional training to become a Blackhawk helicopter mechanic.

Returning to the states in 1999, he met Jennifer. After six years of his full enlistment, he was honorably discharged in 2002, moved back to the Flint area where he grew up, and a few months later, married Jennifer.  

“When I moved back, I didn’t have any definite plans other than to start my life with my new wife,” he says.

He worked in manufacturing, then as a mortgage loan officer for a few years and later at General Motors Engine Plant in Flint, where he’s been for 14 years.

Moving forward

For beekeepers, Henson says diversification — offering other bee-related products — is important to survive a  bad year. He points to this year, with fewer hives, less rain and more extreme heat, he pulled about 30 pounds of honey. Last year, with 16 hives, he pulled 800 pounds of honey.

To expand offerings, they started making beeswax lip balm in five flavors. “It’s been a real success, and we’re looking to expand,” he says.

The next venture was to make homemade deodorant, but the pandemic put that project on hold.

He’s brought in other products sourced from Michigan and the United States, including beeswax candles from Connecticut, honeybee canvas bags from California and other novelties like soap.

To market their products, Henson developed a brand and had professional labels produced, so all his products can be easily identified. “I didn't want to sell our honey in Mason jars with homemade labels,” he says.

Their Facebook page also connects them with customers and those interested in bee products and beekeeping.

They sell at farmers markets, festivals, their website and a local deli. “It’s mostly word of mouth. Both my wife and I sell to co-workers, and we get a lot of repeat customers.”

His wife is director of human resources for a home health care company. “I help some with the hives and paperwork, and the kids (Kaitlyn, 14 and Conner, 11)  also lend a hand,” Jennifer says. “But mainly, it’s my husband that handles the bees.”

The demand is growing, as Henson says more and more people are interested in natural foods.

“People want to know where their food comes from, how its raised, and they also like supporting local production,” he says. “They also see the health benefits.”

Taking care of bees

What’s his mission? Right now, Henson’s No. 1 priority is to take care of the bees.

My motto is “Saving the bees one hive at a time,” he says. “The byproduct is the honey, and the rest of the business, which right now, basically pays for us to help take care of the bees. I’m continuously learning how better to take care of them.”

He pays attention to Mother Nature and keeping the bees alive, making sure they have enough food to get through winter and treating for varroa mites. “Being able to read the hives and their differences especially by location, and knowing what they need is one of my biggest challenges,” he says. “Nothing in nature is an exact science.”

That’s part of the message Henson would like to share with students and others interested in intricacies of bee keeping and honey production. “I’d like to develop a package to give to schools so they have resources to properly teach about pollination and beekeeping,” he says.

Ultimately, Henson would enjoy beekeeping full time with 100 to 200 hives or more. “Maybe, someday, we can get to the commercial level and into more stores,” he adds.

To learn more about the Farmer Veteran Coalition, available grants and giving opportunities, visit farmvetco.org, call 530-756-1395 or email Rachel Petitt at rachel@farmvetco.org.

 

Heroes to Hives program

For the last five years, Michigan State University Extension has offered a nine-month, comprehensive Heroes to Hives program to encourage and empower military service members to continue serving their nation by protecting national food security by supporting honeybees.

The free training is a hybrid learning program using online lectures and hands-on educational experiences at apiaries across Michigan.

The H2H program has been leading the nation in arming veterans, active-duty personnel, National Guard members, reservists and their dependents with the knowledge, experience and network to be successful beekeepers, according to Ana Heck, Michigan State University apiculture Extension educator.

“Honeybees are an important part of U.S agriculture,” she says. “In addition to producing honey, honey bees provide pollination services to many fruits, vegetables and flowering plants.”

Since the program began in 2015, H2H has trained more than 5,000 service members. “This year, we had students from all U.S. states and territories, except American Samoa,” Heck says. “We also had active-duty personnel participating from Europe and Asia.”

H2H was initially designed for service members residing in Michigan, but after receiving an overwhelming number of requests from military across the country, it opened its online programming to out-of-state service members in 2019. This year’s course had more than 5,000 students enrolled.

In 2021, the H2H program took a major step toward reaching more veterans. Partnerships with University of Missouri Extension and the University of Central Missouri, University Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Minnesota now offer students hands-on training opportunities in these states and will serve as the basis for partnerships with other universities to launch hands-on H2H educational programming.

To learn more about the program, visit Heroes to Hives. Registration information for the 2022 course will be available in November.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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