Bob Hill, outreach worker, Anka Akron Veterans Program, shows the first beehive that is part of Thera-Bees, a project aimed to help homeless veterans learn a marketable skill -- beekeeping. (Photo by John Cook)

Bob Hill, outreach worker, Anka Akron Veterans Program, shows the first beehive that is part of Thera-Bees, a project aimed to help homeless veterans learn a marketable skill -- beekeeping. (Photo by John Cook)

Bob Hill, outreach worker, Anka Akron Veterans Program, shows the first beehive that is part of Thera-Bees, a project aimed to help homeless veterans learn a marketable skill -- beekeeping. (Photo by John Cook)
Bob Hill, outreach worker, Anka Akron Veterans Program, shows the
first beehive that is part of Thera-Bees, a project aimed to help
homeless veterans learn a marketable skill — beekeeping. (Photo by
John Cook)

A box patriotically adorned in red, white, and blue solitarily rests in knee deep snowdrifts at the edge of an Akron Township field –  a beehive containing 40,000 bees, making honey for a future harvest, already providing a lot more.
The beehive represents hope, a future, a reason, and distraction along with the calming, soothing effect of the buzzing bees.
It’s Thera-Bees – a project designed to help homeless veterans learn a trade with hopes of one day earning a living as a beekeeper.
The soon-to-be nonprofit organization has been a project in the works for about a year at the Anka Akron Veterans Program – an Akron-based transitional program for veterans who are homeless and have co-occurring mental health and/or substance abuse disorders.
“It’s something outside, which I like, something local we can do, and it’s something that can help earn some money. So that’s three things on my checklist,” said Allen Carlock, who has been a resident at Anka Akron for less than a month. Carlock is among the inaugural participants in the program.
The Anka Akron Veterans Program opened in June 2013. The program encompasses three buildings on a 14.5-acre site in Akron Township that still has plenty of room for the program to grow.
Anka Akron was developed and is operated by Anka Behavioral Health Inc., a nonprofit working in conjunction with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Anka Akron is funded by the Saginaw and Ann Arbor divisions of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and covers the Thumb region – including Tuscola, Huron, and Sanilac counties – all the way to St. Clair County.
A 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated nearly 50,000 homeless veterans live in the United States – including about 1,100 in Michigan. Substance abuse and mental health issues are common among homeless veterans.
Anka Akron aims to do its part to help residents acquire the tools necessary to transition back into the community.
And that’s where Thera-Bees comes in.
Bob Hill, outreach worker, Anka Akron – and one of the organizers of Thera-Bees – said Thera-Bees is consistent with the overall mission of Anka Akron.
The idea came during brainstorming sessions for ways to help residents earn money.
Hill and others involved realized they collectively had a lot of knowledge they could share about beekeeping and “one thing led to another and we were figuring out how we were going to do it.
“The hardcore homeless veterans, they don’t have anything in their pockets,” Hill said. “You put a little jingle in their pockets and suddenly they have a reason to get up in the morning.”
Mark Zmierski, director, Tuscola County Veterans Affairs, said Thera-Bees represents an amazing opportunity for some of the most in-need vets.
“The opportunity for these people that are homeless now to stand on their own two feet is awesome,” Zmierski said. “The potential is just ‘Wow.’ It’s such an an awesome thing when you can give a person an opportunity … to have a normal life.”
Participants will be involved in all phases of the future nonprofit’s operations: building each beehive, loading each beehive, maintaining each beehive, and then harvesting and marketing the end results.
But it isn’t necessarily just about the money.
“That’s the Thera-Bees part of it,” Hill said. “There’s nothing more calming when you come out here and just hear the hum of the bees.”
There’s also the aspect of having to focus on slow movement, a technique that is beneficial to those who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“You have to learn control…and control of emotions because the bees will know if you get excited and they will attack,” Hill said.
To ensure participants in Thera-Bees learn safe-handling practices, they will take part in a 14-class “beekeeping certification” program through Michigan State University. It starts in January and continues through November.
“We’ve already had job offers for those who successfully complete the certification,” Hill said.
Word about Thera-Bees has been spreading during the last year, with organizations and volunteers stepping up in different ways to help.
The first beehive already in place was donated in September by one of the organizers of the Michigan Honey Festival, an annual event held in Frankenmuth. It was stocked with Eastern European Honeybees from Italy.
The local Farmers Veterans Coalition is helping with the structure of Thera-Bees as a viable nonprofit entity, assisting with organizing, writing grant applications, and managing finances until the process of forming completes (expected to occur in March 2017).
Someone donated large logs to be put to use on building beehives. Another volunteer offered up a large power saw to cut the logs that are currently drying and should be ready in the spring, Hill said.
And local bee clubs have offered assistance with processing honey, especially when they become aware of the purpose of Thera-Bees.
The group will need help, too, because Hill said the organizers and participants envision big things for Thera-Bees.
Hill said the property has enough room for 40 hives, though he admits that’s a long time down the line. A year from now, Hill said Thera-Bees will have 12 beehives. The hope is that the beehives will produce an average of $700 in revenue.
With each hive eventually containing about 40,000 bees, the idea is to harvest and sell enough honey, beeswax, and propolis to create a large, self-sustaining operation that will eventually open beyond Anka Akron to all veterans, and even the general public in about five years.
Participating veterans will get to keep a portion of income for their work, Hill said, while money will continually be reinvested into the nonprofit to help new residents at Anka Akron take up the trade. Participants also will be given an opportunity to take a beehive with them when they leave.
The location of the Thera-Bees hives are ideal, Hill said.
First, they are a short walk from the Anka Akron buildings.
But they are also close to a small stream that cuts through the property, a large supply of goldenrod at the eastern edge of the property, pine trees (and other tree types) protecting the hives from winds out of the west, and, of course, all of the area farms.
Hill said the bees will travel as far as three miles from the hive, especially during dry summer months.
“They’re low cost, low maintenance, and they just do so much good,” Hill said. “Even with genetically modified seeds, 70 percent of everything out there still needs a bee to touch it.”
At some point, Hill said, Thera-Bees could expand operations to include renting beehives out to farmers – a common commercial practice during the growing season.
Hill said the organizers of Thera-Bees are documenting every step of the program as it evolves with plans to share it with other similar organizations that can potentially offer the same kind of services.
“It’s going to help a lot of people,” Hill said.
Specifically, veterans like Carlock.
He’s already bought a book about beekeeping, and says he’s excited to start his training in January, during a time of year that has negative effects on the mental health of many.
“It’s definitely something positive that I’m looking forward to,” said Carlock.
More information about Thera-Bees can be obtained by calling Anka Akron at 989-455-1933.
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at andrew@tcadvertiser.com.