You’ve likely heard of it. Honey bee populations across the country are struggling, and Southeast Michigan is no exception. Large-scale farming, widespread pesticide use, diminished foraging spaces for bees (which means they’re hungry), enhanced honey production, mites, and a host of other diseases all contribute to the decline of the bee population.
Michigan is especially important to both bees and beekeepers. The state supports several types of rare bees and many native species. Also Michigan is one of the six states where large populations of honey bees are brought in the summer for honey production.
In the summer of 2009, Ypsilanti native Lisa Bashert was cited for keeping bees in her yard. Earlier that summer, Bashert’s friend, Jamie Berlin, had seen a documentary on the struggle and decimation of bee hives.
Bashert decided to fight back, mounting a campaign to allow backyard beekeeping in Ypsilanti. In November, 2009 an initiative passed, allowing inspired parties to maintain beehives in the city.
Passing the new ordinance inspired parties like Berlin. “I didn’t think I would become a beekeeper, but now it will be a hobby for life. I just thought I would help out, but then I became fascinated and fell in love with the bees,” Berlin said. (Berlin went on to start her own hive host program Ypsi Melissa, where she connects people with land to spare with people interested in caring for hives).
The Bee Doctor
Bashert started a movement in Ypsilanti, but strengthening bees on a bigger scale has been the mission of Dr. Meghan Milbrath, the proprietor of Sandhill Apiaries, a provider of the bees for many in Ypsilanti.
Milbrath, a Ph.d. in Epidemiology, is an expert on diseases and their transmission through populations. She employs her background as a scientist to breed bees to survive the threats they face.
“Honey bees are social beings,” she said. “You can actually use a lot of the same techniques studying honey bees as those used studying human diseases.”
Bees face a host of issues, Milbrath focuses her energy on their habitats and the varroa mites. Varroa mites infect the bees with a powerful virus and suck their blood which shortens their life and can leave them deformed. She selectively breeds bees that can manage the mite by themselves to eventually have a group of varroa-resistant bees.
Milbrath is also conducting research on bees in areas with habitat restoration. She wants to scientifically show the logical conclusion that restored land improves bee health.
“When you eat a diverse diet, you’re healthier, Dr. Milbrath said. “If the bees have a diverse diet, they are healthier. With these restored lands, you have greater diversity and greater abundance of flowers and that has been directly linked to honeybee health.”
Building a community hive
The contagious nature of bee-keeping found Germaine Smith, who, while writing about sustainability, became acquainted with local beekeepers, which led to her befriending Jamie Berlin.
Smith launched the Bee Safe Neighborhood Campaign, door-to-door canvassing to encourage homeowners in Normal Park to maintain a more bee friendly yard by reducing/eliminating pesticide use and planting bee friendly plants.
This hyper-local focus of a neighborhood demonstrates the chain reaction of influencers. The movement started with Bashert and picked up Berlin and Smith along the way, “We all have a limited sphere of influence, but when we inspire another person then they exert their sphere of influence and the chain repeats.” Berlin said. “Being a bee champion is contagious. People really respond to the message. It’s a great cause,” she added.
Smith shares a similar sentiment, emphasizes the efficacy of small movements, “Baby step by baby step, you just have to keep moving forward. Sure I get exhausted and sometimes I think, ‘Ugh why can’t someone else do this?’, but that’s okay. Eventually people will get involved. I’m starting to see that.”
Anyone can make their land (or neighborhood) more bee-friendly. “Even a small planting, is incredibly effective.” Milbrath said. “Having lots of people doing it on a small scale is what will fix the situation. The big message is ‘Do what you can where you can’.”
What can I do?
- Don’t use pesticides. If you must spray your plants, do it at night and get a chemical that won’t harm pollinators.
- Plant ‘bee friendly’ plants.
- Advocate for bee habitat restoration.
- Know your local beekeeper and use local honey.
- Reach out to one of these groups or initiatives
Want to keep your own bees?
Reach out to one of these groups or initiatives, they are very friendly, to bees and people.
- Washtenaw County Food Policy Council
- Ypsi Melissa
- Local Honey Project
- Bee City USA-Ypsilanti
- Ypsilanti Food Co-op