Check out the buzz around this veteran’s bee business

Matt Saintsing
September 10, 2018 - 10:22 am

Courtesy of Bee Haven Supply

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In 2007, Joe Blackhurst wrapped up an 11-year career in the Marines, which included deployments to Bosnia and Croatia. When it came time to find a meaningful civilian job, he tried the oil and gas industry, working in a courthouse, and as a land manager in his home state of West Virginia, none of which he particularly enjoyed. But today, his family-run business is buzzing, literally and figuratively.

He’s in the bee industry.

Blackhurst launched Bee Haven Supply in his hometown of Ravenswood, West Virginia in 2016. He got the idea after he quit yet another unfulfilling job that left him wanting to help out his community and spend more time with his family.  

“I just couldn’t handle the rat-race anymore, it was too stressful,” says Blackhurst. “Then I was approached to make some habitats for mason bees,” which are a native North American bee species.

Courtesy of Bee Haven Supply

With the help of Boots to Bees, an organization that connects veterans into a career selling, setting up and maintaining healthy beehives, Blackhurst got hooked on the sweet life of professional bee-keeping.

“The fascination I got with it is, you have to do everything slow and deliberate,” he says. “And everything must be organized,” which has a soothing and calming effect especially for those who have experienced the harsh realities of war.

Bees and veterans are a natural fit. That's because beekeeping is slow, methodical, and all about the process, which can have a calming impact on the roughly 12.5 percent of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who live with post-traumatic stress (PTS). Bees, on the other hand, can use all the help they can get. Colony Collapse Disorder is threatening bees throughout the country, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Despite being on active duty on 9/11, Blackhurst never had the chance to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan. As a former field artillery Marine, however, he did serve in Bosnia and Croatia years before the United States went to war in the Middle East.

“I’ve seen and done things that would be frightening to a lot of people,” says Blackhurst.

By offering veterans a purpose to not only help their communities but to get outside their own heads he says keeping and raising bees helps with his troubling memories. “I know a lot of veterans who have (post-traumatic stress), traumatic brain injuries, and depression and bee-keeping saved their lives.”

Courtesy of Bee Haven Supply

Once he was told about the efforts to get veterans raising and selling bees, he got hooked on the sweet life of the bee industry. And pollinators of all stripes can use all the help they can get, since about every three bites of food we eat is a direct result from pollination.

Blackhurst had 22 hives not long after he started, which translates to hundreds of thousands of bees.

Today, he supplies everyone from Future Farmers of America students, to experienced life-long beekeepers, and a few veterans and Gold Star family members in surrounding counties in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio.

Veterans get a 10 percent discount every day of the year at his store, while Gold Star family members, relatives of troops killed in battle, get a 20 percent discount.

And it’s truly a family affair. It’s literally a mom-and-pop-shop, with his wife, Maggie, and five “worker bee” children all under the age of 10.

Courtesy of Bee Haven Supply

But make no mistake, it’s hard work, says Blackhurst, as bee-keeping is all about order and discipline.

“If you try to keep bees in an unorganized or chaotic fashion, you’re going to have some frustrations,” he says. “Bees are going to die, you’re going to get stung, it’s a lose-lose for everybody.”

Bee Haven Supply has everything from nucs—honey bee colonies— to all the equipment needed to get bee-keepers started. Of course, he also sells honey and candles made from bee’s wax.

“Every year I grow a little bigger, I get a little smarter and I’ve decided this spring I’m going to have about 300 nukes,” he says. That’s millions of pollinators.

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