0
Business Non-Profits

A Buzz-Worthy Mission: Beekeeping Organizations in Metro Detroit

August 1, 2022

Beekeeping organizations blossom in and around Metro Detroit

BY ALLISON TORRES BURTKA

People depend on pollinators. Beyond producing honey, bees are essential to our ecosystem — including the food we eat.

In Michigan, “we’ve got cherries, we’ve got apples, we’ve got blueberries — we’ve got all these fruits and vegetables, which require pollination,” says Richard Anderson, a Detroit beekeeper and president of the Southeastern Michigan Beekeepers Association. “Our diets would be very bland and not very colorful if we didn’t have the pollination of bees.”

Interest in bees and beekeeping has grown in recent years, in part because of an increasing awareness of pollinators’ importance in the ecosystem. Bees pollinate plants that produce our food, but they also pollinate plants that birds and other species depend on.

A Buzz-Worthy Mission: Beekeeping Organizations in Metro Detroit

BEES IN THE D Brian Peterson-Roest takes a family on a private hive tour in Detroit in 2021.

“If we don’t have that pollinating, then our populations of other animals in the food chain are going to decline, which then causes a domino effect,” says Brian Peterson-Roest, founder of Bees in the D, a nonprofit whose mission is to educate the importance of honeybees and native pollinators. “But by having a healthy foundation, with a diversity of plants and seeds, and fruits and berries — even throughout the city area — we’ve already seen, in a lot of our gardens, a huge increase in bird life, … in butterflies, in other animals that are part of that ecosystem.”

Detroit has a long history of keeping bees, and now, hives have been installed on building rooftops and formerly vacant lots in the city, as well as in community gardens, farms, backyards, schools, and other spaces across southeast Michigan. Additionally, several beekeeping organizations have sprung up across metro Detroit, working to protect these pollinators and educate the public about their importance. And it’s working — they’ve seen a surge in public interest and awareness of bees. Everyone is buzzing about them.

A Buzz-Worthy Mission: Beekeeping Organizations in Metro Detroit

Hives on top of Cobo managed by Bees in the D

Bees in the D has about 220 hives at 70 locations in and around Detroit, including businesses’ rooftops, schools, and community gardens. Gardens are especially appropriate sites for hives because gardens produce more when they have ample pollinators nearby. For example, Bees in the D has hives at the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative and on the rooftop of Detroit City Distillery. They partnered with the distillery to use honey produced there to make a honey bourbon and a bourbon-barrel-aged honey.

Public education is an important component of what some of these beekeeping nonprofits do. Bees in the D works with students at all grade levels, as well as with the general public. “We want people to understand how our natural world and our food industry work,” says Peterson-Roest, who is a fifth-grade teacher at Rochester Community Schools. Honeybees are often used to teach a unit on the life cycle to second graders in Michigan, so he gives presentations about that, he says.

Detroit Hives, another nonprofit keeping bees in Detroit, has transformed formerly vacant lots into urban apiaries (bee farms), which is good for the bees and for the neighborhoods. They have hives in more than 20 locations, including reclaimed lots, schools, and community gardens, and they give apiary tours and educational presentations.

The Southeastern Michigan Beekeepers Association, which offers beekeeping classes, also gives presentations about bees at schools, libraries, and community centers. Part of that education includes addressing people’s fears of being stung by bees.

“Honeybees don’t tend to sting indiscriminately,” Anderson says. “You should respect them like every other creature on the planet, but there’s no need to really fear them.” He has been keeping bees in Detroit for 12 years and has about 120 hives.

Peterson-Roest notes that people often think the wasps and hornets that congregate at trash cans, for example, are honeybees, but they’re not. Although honey-bees are not native to Michigan, they do pollinate native plants, which are needed to keep our ecosystem healthy. And Michigan is home to more than 460 species of native bees.

The Southeastern Michigan Beekeepers Association’s beekeeping class spans nine months, and as part of it, students take care of a colony at the community apiary at Michigan State University’s Tollgate Farm and Education Center. Before COVID, SEMBA had so many students interested that they had to triple the number of classes available. It’s important for people to take a class “and not to try to jump into it without any hands-on, real direct training,” says Cecilia Infante, director of one of SEMBA’s beginner beekeeping schools. “Bees face a lot of challenges, particularly varroa mites,” and beekeepers need to be well trained in how to deal with them.

A Buzz-Worthy Mission: Beekeeping Organizations in Metro Detroit

GREEN TOE GARDENS: Joan Mandell teaches a beekeeping class at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Royal Oak.

Joan Mandell is co-founder and beekeeper of Green Toe Gardens, which keeps 100 hives in and near Detroit. “My partner, Rich [Wieske], started beekeeping in the city of Detroit about 20 years ago, and before long, I joined him,” she says. “When we started keeping hives, many people thought that bees were weird or scary, but with every media blast about ‘dying bees’ or ‘saving bees,’ interest in our experience grew. We are happy to see that awareness is now taking off beyond honeybees to include native pollinators that are far more endangered by habitat loss and pesticides.”

A Buzz-Worthy Mission: Beekeeping Organizations in Metro Detroit

Honey by Green Toe Gardens.

One sign of this heightened awareness is No Mow May, an initiative through Bee City USA that calls for people to let their grass grow without mowing it during the month of May so that early-season pollinators have flowers to forage. Royal Oak and Ann Arbor recently joined the initiative.

Mandell says initiatives like No Mow May and Food Not Lawns, a movement to convert lawns into gardens, are encouraging. “People are starting to understand that what’s good for bees, birds, and butterflies is good for people, too.” Green Toe Gardens produces Wild Detroit Honey, and they also “focus on educational work within the movements for local food and environmental justice.”

Beekeepers say there’s another benefit to keeping bees: It’s calming. “It does seem strange to gravitate toward hundreds of thousands of venomous insects for calming purposes. But believe it or not, when you open a hive, there’s so much going on, you can’t but completely zero in and focus. It’s like a zen,” Infante explains. “It’s a process of such slow observation and admiration. You see the way the bees work together, the sort of miraculous communications that they have.”

A Buzz-Worthy Mission: Beekeeping Organizations in Metro Detroit

BEE WARIORS Cecilia Infante and her husband, Eric Spalding, keep bees together at the Farm on St. Joe’s Hospital Campus in Ann Arbor.

Infante had been researching the therapeutic benefits of beekeeping for psychologically challenged people, particularly soldiers — beekeeping was used to help rehabilitate soldiers returning from World War I. She became interested in starting a pilot program for veterans, and that’s how she met her husband, who had been using beekeeping to help manage his PTSD. They started a small business called Bee Warriors, selling their honey through the farm-to-table organization Growing Hope, and created scholarships for veterans to take SEMBA classes.

Along with her work with SEMBA, Infante also is a historian for the Michigan Beekeepers Association and manages the two hives at The Farm on St. Joe’s Hospital campus in Ann Arbor. She has an urban apiary in Ypsilanti and a farm at Whitmore Lake, where she has anywhere between 60 and 120 hives at a time; each hive houses up to 80,000 bees.

Adam Ingrao, a disabled veteran, turned to beekeeping when transitioning out of the Army. “One of the things that I struggled with coming out of the military was this reliving the past kind of thing. My friends were overseas—some of them never came home. There’s a lot of guilt that goes along with that that I still deal with today,” he says. “When you’re with your bees, you have to be present. You can’t be thinking about those things in the past—you have to practice mindfulness. It’s a forced practice in mindfulness.”

A Buzz-Worthy Mission: Beekeeping Organizations in Metro Detroit

HEROES TO HIVES Adam Ingrao (center) teaches a workshop at Kellogg Biological Station Bird Sanctuary in Augusta, Michigan. Also pictured (from left to right) is Army veteran Frank Ervin, USMC veteran Tom Kusar, Lt. Col. Savannah Halleaux of the Michigan Army National Guard, and Army veteran Joshua Freeman.

Ingrao, who has a Ph.D. in entomology from Michigan State University, explains, “If you’re not gentle, if you’re not slow, if you’re not moving methodically, if you’re being careless, if you’re thinking about other things, the bees let you know, and they let you know by stinging you.”

He found this forced mindfulness therapeutic, saw parallels between military service and beekeeping, and co-founded Heroes to Hives to help other veterans learn beekeeping.

One alumnus of the program who had spent decades in the Special Forces enjoys beekeeping because it’s a heightened sense of danger all the time, Ingrao says. “He operates at that level — that’s where he feels comfortable,” he says. “So it also offers people like that, who need that kind of heightened adrenaline just to feel normal, to be able to experience that in a safe and productive place.”

Heroes to Hives started in Michigan but has expanded internationally, and thousands of veterans have gone through the program. Some training is online, and some is in person. The on-the-ground training, which is provided through partnerships with universities, is offered in Michigan through the Michigan State University Extension, as well as in Missouri, Nebraska, and Minnesota. Heroes to Hives has partnered with Bees in the D so that veterans will take care of some of the Bees in the D’s hives. Ingrao adds, “I think a lot of people are craving more connection to nature, and bees are a way to do that.”

 

Learn more and get involved through any of the following beekeeping organizations and associations:

Bees in the D: beesinthed.com

Detroit Hives: detroithives.org

Green Toe Gardens: facebook.com/GreenToeGardens

Heroes to Hives: facebook.com/heroestohives

Southeastern Michigan Beekeepers Association: sembabees.org

Michigan Beekeepers Association: michiganbees.org

No Comments

    Leave a Reply