While teaching historical beekeeping years ago, Ginger Fenwick came across a document that resonated with her. Published April 1919, the document discussed the benefits of beekeeping as a hobby or vocation for disabled veterans. Around the time she read this, there were—and still are—concerningly high numbers of suicide among veterans. Both she and her husband come from military families, so this news hit home.
“Between us, we knew that we had to do something. It didn't matter what, we had to do something to help one person in our community,” she said.
So Ginger Fenwick, now an accounting assistant in the University of Nevada, Reno School of Public Health, and her husband Daniel Fenwick, emeritus at the University, started Bees4Vets, a nonprofit with the mission of supporting veterans and first responders with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) by teaching beekeeping. The program is run independently of the University but utilizes space on the University’s Main Station Field Lab, part of the Nevada Experiment Station and the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources.
“PTSD” is the official diagnostic term, however there is growing support for renaming the condition to post-traumatic stress (PTS) or post-traumatic stress injury. By dropping the word “disorder,” it is hoped that less stigma will be associated with the condition.
On August 9, 2021, CNBC’s The News with Shepard Smith aired a segment featuring Bees4Vets. The segment included interviews with Daniel and Ginger Fenwick and participants in their program.
“I’m so humbled at this special opportunity to share our success with the nation and hopefully inspire others to help those with PTSD [and] TBI in their communities too,” Ginger Fenwick said. “Honeybees are a great example of working together for sweeter tomorrows, and were it not for our veterans and first responders our ‘tomorrows’ might never come. We owe them so much, this is just our way to say ‘Thank you for all you do!’”
Building a support system through beekeeping
In the four years and counting that Daniel and Ginger Fenwick have operated Bees4Vets, they have always worked to create a safe and accommodating environment for their students. Each beekeeping season, which runs approximately from April to October, there are typically 10 spaces available for veterans and first responders living with PTSD or TBI. Throughout the season, participants learn beekeeping while gaining skills that can benefit their personal life and, in many instances, their careers.
Classes are conducted on the apiary, the place where the bees are kept, and participants work with approximately 30 beehives. To help students feel as comfortable as possible, they have the option of working apart from others. They can also choose to bring a friend or family member along to work with them. Having these options available assists in making the program accessible to students with varying needs so that more can participate.
Daniel and Ginger Fenwick have seen many students prosper during and after their experience with the program. Through beekeeping, students learn how to work peacefully and methodically with the bees and their hives, which teaches them “mindfulness” and how to live in the moment. Ginger Fenwick said developing these skills helps students overcome their fears and better cope with anxiety.
“One change we've noticed most [in participants] is a calmness,” she said. “We have a veteran right now who said that when he rolls into that apiary, he is just so full of anxiety and frustration. But as soon as he gets towards that hive, he just calms down.”
Another major benefit of the program Daniel Fenwick mentioned is a sense of belonging.
“Most people in the military talk about how they're part of a team. When they leave the military, that team goes away. Some of [the students] have talked about this as the worst thing for them – all that support is gone,” he said. “Our first-year students still get our weekly emails. We've left them as part of that team; they can come out to the apiary anytime they want.”
Upon beginning the class, Bees4Vets students receive all the basic beekeeping equipment free-of-charge. This equipment is donation funded. Ginger and Daniel Fenwick run the program in their spare time. While the work involved can be demanding, they both emphasized how important it was to them.
“It's worth it to help people. When somebody tells you how much you've helped them, it really pulls at your heart,” Daniel Fenwick said. “Regardless of who you are and what your background is, we can all help each other, and this is where we found a spot where we could help somebody.”
Ginger Fenwick shared a similar sentiment. “It doesn't take a degree to make someone feel that they have value and that you care for them, and I think that's also what Dan and I really try to share with these folks, ‘you're important to us’,” she said. “Our goal was always just to help one [person] and we have succeeded beyond our dreams.”
Support from Nevada Experiment Station
Bees4Vets is also made possible by the support of the Nevada Experiment Station. This partnership has allowed the nonprofit ample space to host students and the numerous beehives. The Station grows alfalfa, which not only nourishes the bees and gives them forage but having the bees helps with pollination of the plant. Chris Pritsos, director of the Nevada Experiment Station, called Bees4Vets “outstanding.”
“One of the Experiment Station’s missions is to provide support to Nevadans in the area of health and nutrition,” he said. “Partnering with Bees4Vets is a great collaboration that allows us to help address that mission through agricultural practices while contributing to the health of our fields through pollination.”
In the future, Ginger and Daniel Fenwick hope to expand upon what Bees4Vets can offer. They would like to add 10 more students to the class and eventually collaborate with someone who can also teach agricultural concepts to the participants. Because many of their veterans are also becoming farmers, Ginger Fenwick said having this additional training would be another way they could support their students’ goals.
Pritsos was also optimistic about the future of Nevada Experiment Station’s partnership with Bees4Vets. “We have had a very productive relationship with Bees4Vets program and anticipate continuing and expanding this relationship to not only provide much needed assistance to [veterans and first responders] but to also serve to train future beekeepers so vital to the agricultural and natural resources of this region,” he said.
“Bees are agriculturally important because they are involved in pollinating many of the fruits and vegetables that we want to see when we walk into a grocery store,” said Anne Leonard, associate professor of Biology in the University’s College of Science with active research studying plant-pollinator interactions. “Honeybees in particular are responsible for the year-round availability of popular fruits and vegetables.”
To learn more about the beekeeping program and how to get involved, visit the Bees4Vets website.