Military veteran Marc Webb struggled to leave his house in Adelaide, years after a serious incident in Afghanistan left him wounded and traumatised. He never thought bees would be what saved him.
When Marc Webb returned from Afghanistan in 2015, he didn’t notice anything different. But his wife Rhiann did.
“It was like having a new person in the family,” she says.
A counterintelligence officer in the Air Force, Marc had spent 14 months away from Rhiann and their then eight-year-old daughter, Estelle.
A traumatic event on deployment seriously injured Marc’s back and forced him to return home to Adelaide — and his family — early.
“Estelle and I had become a single-parent household and all of the rules changed within the home,” Rhiann says.
“So when Marc came home he realised we didn’t need him, but we wanted him to be there.
“About six months after he got in, that’s when it really started to occur to me that things were different. He would react differently.”
She says they learnt to adapt and outlawed certain items, like balloons, in the house.
“[Being an] alpha male in the military all his life, he got angry and just didn’t know how to deal with these sorts of feelings and wanting to hide them at the same time.”
It was a stark contrast to the “really outgoing extrovert” she’d married years earlier.
“Now he just wanted to stay inside and make sure that nothing happened that was unexpected.”
The power of the bees
In an attempt to find things that made Marc calm, the family took to gardening.
It was there, on their 525-square-metre block in suburban Adelaide, that he found the thing that would heal him.
“It was originally the absence of bees that I noted in the garden; I was having to self-pollinate our pumpkins,” Marc says.
After months of his wife’s campaigning, Marc bought Rhiann a beehive for her birthday.
“Where I was sitting watching television, I could see the beehive out the window,” Marc says.
“I was watching the bees come and go from the hive and I found myself really relaxing watching them.
“I found myself feeling, for lack of a better term, better.
“I didn’t know that I wasn’t feeling well, but I was feeling better by watching the bees.”
He became a bee expert — undertaking courses, devouring YouTube videos, and learning the difference between the “buzz” and the “hum”.
“I spent a lot of time just looking at more and more of the intricacies of these bees and learning about their habits and behaviours … it was just really helpful for my own mental health.”
His psychologist at the time described the effect of the bees as mindfulness — the state of being present, conscious of your surroundings.
“Some people really like watching aquariums, and for me it was that similar sort of moment of just watching something else and its life and its world becoming a part of mine,” Marc says.
The recognition of mindfulness helped Marc to an eventual diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 2018, three years after he returned from Afghanistan.
The diagnosis was a relief for Rhiann.
“It took four years of arguing and talking to his doctors to try and get him to realise something was different,” she says.
“But at least once we knew [it was PTSD] and he was learning to acknowledge it, then we could figure it out together.
Losing it all … then finding it again
Marc’s physical injuries were more severe than they had thought.
In 2018 he was medically discharged from the Defence Force, ending an 18-year career.
“It was quite a shock. We were a military family for life and anticipated Marc being in the military all the way through to his retirement,” Rhiann says.
“It was a really big hit to our family to know that we needed to change what we were doing and that our life was not going to be what we had planned.
“That’s when we started to look for property. We knew that Marc’s PTSD wasn’t coping with being in suburbia.”
They bought four hectares in the Adelaide Hills.
Just four months after moving in, disaster struck.
A bushfire caused by SA Power Networks infrastructure ripped through the area. It destroyed 85 homes, including the Webbs’, and claimed one life.
“You go through the actual bushfire and it’s a traumatic event, but it’s really exhilarating and adrenaline-pumping because you’re dealing with a crisis at the time,” Rhiann says.
“The hardest part is how things change afterwards and how much we realised that we do rely on our personal and material items and the structure that that gives us, particularly as a family.”
The December 2019 Cudlee Creek fire triggered Marc’s PTSD.
“He now suffers a lot more. His care and requirements and needs are quite different,” Rhiann says.
“I was doing quite well for, I think, the first three months,” Marc says.
“It was after that initial pep from the trauma that we started, the whole family started to come down and crash from that.”
Bringing others on a journey of healing
Marc had started teaching a few other veterans beekeeping before the fire.
“Because I found it by accident, I didn’t think it was fair for others to find it by chance when I thought it’s better that I’d make it available to them.”
While Men’s Sheds and sports are good options, Marc says they’re not suited to everyone.
“With my back injury, that’s not really an option for me. And in fact, a lot of people with PTSD, perhaps a sport isn’t a good idea, particularly when you’re talking about contact sports.
He’s been showing Mitch Fisher, a serving infantry platoon sergeant in the Army, the ropes for a few years.
After crossing paths at the barracks, Marc’s been having Mitch around to try his hand at beekeeping.
“It’s a bit of a light-bulb moment because up until the fact you like bees, they’re just a pest,” Mitch says.
Having been on the frontline of war zones, he’s seen his share of trauma.
“The [bees] are helping me get over that. I can’t personify how they are, but they are actually helping,” Mitch says.
“You watch them and they’re so chaotic but yet so organised. And you sit there in just pure amazement, watching them do exactly what they need to do.
“For me, it just completely takes me out of whatever the issue is at the time, whatever I’m struggling to deal with.”
He says he’ll never be able to look at bees the same again.
“Now I’m starting to take notice of … what blossoms are flowering at the time, how quickly they can turn that into honey, and how quickly I can essentially steal it from them.”
Hives For Heroes
Marc is determined to get the word out about beekeeping as an alternative therapy for trauma.
In his research, he found a non-profit organisation in the United States with a mission of saving bees and veterans.
The three-year program pairs veterans — NewBEEs — with mentors as they learn about beekeeping, manage their own hive and then mentor someone else.
“When we found Hives For Heroes, we thought that was a far better option than what we were doing here,” Marc says.
“Having that one-on-one mentor can help you to build a relationship with somebody and keep you engaged, and that’s why the three-year program is important.”
Interested in forming an Australian branch, he reached out to beekeepers around the country.
With the support of US founder Steve Jimenez and local business partner Richard Iveson, Marc is establishing Hives For Heroes Australia for veterans and first responders.
In the US, the program has grown to a network of more than 1,600 beekeepers in all 50 states — a quick jump from its origins in 2018.
“Our first year was a handful of veterans here in the Houston, Texas area, and as we started on social media, we were getting requests from all over the country: ‘Hey, can we be involved?’,” Steve says.
For the Marine Corps veteran, going into a hive changed his life.
“It’s all about the relationships that are built — letting people know that they have somebody with them, a purpose behind them,” he says.
“The suicide epidemic in the US is 22 a day. It’s unbelievable. It’s not right and we’ve gotta take care of each other, and actively, proactively.”
Opportunity to work again
For Marc, beekeeping has become a source of income for his family.
“The thing is with veterans with PTSD, it’s very difficult for them to get work because you can be unreliable. You may wake up one day and you just cannot possibly go to work that day, you can’t leave the house.
“Because of my injuries I’ve been deemed unfit for work, however through beekeeping I work every day.”
But the work is about much more than money.
“With beekeeping, you’re always planning ahead, you’re always planning for the next season, you’re planning for the next hive management check,” Marc says.
“That helps the veteran to have a reason for the next day, the next week, the next month.
“It’s about suicide prevention at the same time as that skill set and reward.”
As far as a viable career goes, there couldn’t be a better time to enter the industry, according to Jo Martin.
Jo, who is a daughter and sister of veterans, is the secretary of the Queensland Beekeepers’ Association and would love to see more people take on a hive.
“We’re an ageing population. Our industry is largely based on our forefathers, so we don’t seem to have that great succession plan anymore with the businesses being passed on to the next generation,” she says.
With an expansion in horticultural industries and increasing pollination demands, Jo believes the number of hives will need to at least double in the next five to 10 years.
“At the moment, we’re probably one of the most understaffed industries there are, yet they stretch,” she says.
“We’re really thirsty for new blood to come in and new people to experience what this life’s all about.”
She sees veterans and beekeeping as a perfect match.
“Coming from a very high-stress environment where there might be a few war wounds, [being able to enjoy] something that’s a little slower pace, something that you can sit back and really throw yourself into, is ideal.
“The beauty about what we do is it gives them that little bit of freedom, but there’s still a lot of structure that’s involved with beekeeping.
Dreams for the future
As well as mentoring others through Hives For Heroes on their farm, Marc and Rhiann want to provide a retreat for families experiencing trauma.
“There’s a lot of veterans out there that don’t have families that support them, their marriages weren’t able to survive the diagnosis of PTSD, and they haven’t managed to build bonds with their children,” Rhiann says.
“The things that we’ve worked out that work for Marc, people don’t know about and so I think that’s where Marc and I want to be able to support others.”
Marc is conscious of the many veterans who may have been triggered by the recent Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, as he was.
“We have a lot of young people who have both served overseas and served here, nationally … that’s a lot of young people who have spent time serving this country and we really need to support them,” he says.
“Also now that COVID has come along, the people that are suffering from PTSD and traumatic experiences are first responders, and we need to know that there are tens of thousands of them and they need our support,” Rhiann says.
“Their families, their carers — they’re just as important for us to remember … we need to look after them.”
Looking back, it’s hard for Marc to believe where he is now.
“There were definitely some points in my marriage where I didn’t know if it would continue,” he says.
“My wife has been absolute rock, as has my daughter Estelle, and we now have [daughter] Phoenix, of course.
“So Phoenix might not have been on the cards had my recovery not gone so well.
“I think despite everything, we’re stronger than ever and I think we’re blessed by the bees — the bees really have given us more than they’ll ever know.”
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