beekeeper holding up a tray of bees
beekeeper
From Forgotten Spaces to Honeybee Homes
Bee habitats bring urban renewal at these Detroit apiaries
By Jodi Helmer
Images courtesy of Bees in the D and Detroit Hives
In 2016, deserted lots spread across the Detroit area like mushroom clusters. The city was at the peak of an abandonment crisis that had been growing for decades, steadily fed by economic and social factors.

The rise of empty spaces was causing a variety of issues, from trash dumping and rodent infestation to a rise in local crime.

Where most only saw ruin, two locals saw opportunity. When Timothy Paul Jackson read an article reporting Detroit had 90,000 vacant lots, some being sold by the city for as little as $100, he and Nicole Lindsey got an idea.

“We figured that we could take some of these vacant lots and do something cool [and] creative that would help to bring the community together,” says Timothy.
That something? Turn abandoned properties into apiaries.

“At that time, the only revitalization we were seeing in our city or was hearing about was in Downtown Detroit through large corporations,” Timothy says. “Our goal was to provide a project that offered a triple bottom-line solution: providing social, environmental and financial impact.”

Timothy and Nicole established nonprofit Detroit Hives, purchased five lots, and set up three beehives. “We’ve taken these vacant lots [and] transformed the spaces so that are inviting for not only the community but also our pollinators,” Timothy says. “Through bee conservation, we believe a healthy future for bees reflects a healthy future for humanity.”

Troy Bilt
Troy Bilt
/ Touting Bees from the Rooftops /
Beekeeper and elementary school teacher Brian Peterson-Roest also had a vision to transform Detroit into a honeybee haven.

But rather than focusing exclusively on vacant lots, the founder of Bees in the D, another honeybee and pollinator-focused nonprofit, works with businesses, schools, and other entities to establish apiaries in unused spaces in Detroit, including the rooftops of downtown buildings.

Since 2016, Bees in the D has expanded from its first six hives to more than 200 in 52 locations. It has hives on the rooftops of the TCF Center, the Detroit Free Press building, and the Shinola Hotel, as well as in the garden at the MGM Casino—all iconic locations that showcase the commitment that community partners both large and small share in protecting honeybees in the Motor City.

honey dripping with bees
A honey drip from a beehive at Bees in the D.
/ Growing Local /
One-third of the food we eat, including fruits, vegetables, coffee, and chocolate, depend on insect pollination, according to Pollinator Partnership. Brian believes that growing awareness of this critical role bees play has helped support organizations like Bees in the D.

“We’ve been welcomed with open arms because I think people are recognizing how important this incredible insect is to our food industry and our food chain,” he says.

Education is a key component of the missions of both Detroit Hives and Bees in the D.

In 2018, the Michigan DNR Outdoor Adventure Center partnered with Bees in the D to install four hives on its downtown site. The live feed from a solar-powered camera installed inside one of the hives is broadcast in the building to show visitors what happens in the colonies. The center also hosts educational programming centered around the honeybees.

“When we opened five years ago, bees were not on our radar. Now it’s one of our most popular exhibits,” says Linda Walter, director for the center.

“Education is so important,” Brian says. “I enjoy teaching younger kids about the different jobs bees do in the hive and we can use the hive to teach older kids about economics [of raising bees and selling honey].”

A beekeeper tends to a hive
A beekeeper tends to a hive at Bees in the D
For its part, Detroit Hives visits local schools with an observation hive, a special beehive with plexiglass walls that allow students to watch the colony in action. The organization also hosts tours of its downtown apiaries, educating visitors on how vacant urban lots can provide important habitats for honeybees. To spread the message about the importance of establishing beehives in cities even further, Detroit Hives declared July 19 National Urban Beekeeping Day.
Honeybees
Honeybees from Detroit Hives
/ Helping Beyond the Hive /
While Bees in the D and Detroit Hives are both focused on using honeybees, creating pollinator habitats in high density areas like Detroit increases biodiversity and attracts a range of pollinators, including the 460 species of bees, butterflies, moths, and bats that are native to Michigan.

“Keeping bees in cities improves the ecosystem and sends the message to the general public that bees are important,” says Zachary Huang, PhD, a beekeeper and associate professor with the Department of Entomology at Michigan State University.

Both nonprofits harvest honey from their hives to sell—Bees in the D harvested 2,000 pounds last season and Detroit Hives collected 400 pounds. Both nonprofit founders call their honey sales a sweet bonus of raising bees, but not a main part of their business models. In addition to selling honey to the general public, Bees in the D supplies Detroit businesses, including breweries and distilleries that use the product in their beers and spirits. This helps further spread interest in local honey and the cause.

All the money Detroit Hives and Bees in the D raise through honey sales goes toward beekeeping equipment and supplies to advance their missions.

And the investments go far beyond the hives.

“Our mission is about bees and training, careers, and placemaking,” Timothy says. “We want to be community change agents. It’s not just the bees that benefit in this project; it’s our pollinators, our planet, and the people in our communities as well.”
For more information about these organizations, visit their websites: DetroitHives.com and BeesInTheD.com.
About the Writer
Jodi Helmer writes about food, farming, and the environment from her homestead in rural North Carolina.

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