Metro Detroit’s honeybees get by with a little help from their friends

Brian Peterson-Roest believes it’s going to take a whole lot of worker bees, both human and insect, to keep the Michigan honeybee population healthy. But he has reason to be hopeful. 

The beekeeper is the founder of non-profit group Bees in the D, which started out in 2016 with six hives and a goal to support honeybees in metro Detroit. Now, Peterson-Roest and his team manage over 175 honeybee hives across six counties in 50 locations, cooperating with residents, schools, scout groups and businesses to support honeybee health. But it takes some serious teamwork.

In Sterling Heights, the group has joined forces with four other partners to establish hives at a Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) factory. Bees in the D have collaborated with FCA to support a colony of honeybees at the company’s Sterling Heights Assembly Plant, where a natural area at the facility is ideal for supporting two hives. The Waste Management Group have donated hives to the project, while the TDE Group helped clear the area and donate mulch, and Chemico purchased native plants and established a bench seat with equipment storage space. So far, it’s been a success.

“The hives are looking amazing,” says Peterson-Roest. “That cold spell at the end of May slowed them down but the rain we got [in June] will help, it was getting pretty dry.”

Honeybee hives at FCA's Sterling Heights Stamping Plant are thriving.

Honeybees are not native to North America, but were bought into the country for agricultural purposes. The pollinators have become an integral part of the country’s ecosystem but honeybee populations have been on the decline over the last 50 years. Honey-producing colonies in the U.S. have dropped 45%, from 5.9 million in 1947 to 2.67 million in 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports.

Peterson-Roest says there’s mixed reasons for the decline, including Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) where colonies disappear or die.

“There are many theories about [CCD], but there’s a combination of things happening,” he says. 

“Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides can be a problem—they are designed to kill insects harmful to crops but can kill those that are beneficial. Habitat is another issue, urban sprawl takes land but also we've also created a monoculture where fields are miles and miles of corn, or one type of plant that doesn't allow for the diversity pollinators need.”

The other threat contributing to the loss of colonies is Varroa mites. “Because we have become a global society, Varroa mites and other diseases can spread quickly,” says Peterson-Roest. “They have devastated hives across the world and it’s worse in the winter, a typically stressful time for bees.”

But there is some good news. During the 2019-2020 winter season, an estimated 22.2% of managed honeybee colonies in the U.S. were lost, according to a report by the Bee Informed Partnership, but that figure is significantly less than the previous year, when 37.7% of colonies were lost. In metro Detroit specifically, Peterson-Roest has witnessed some positive trends.

“In the last few years, especially in urban areas, we have actually seen an uptick,” he says. "We had more hives overwinter successfully this year than the previous."

“I think people are becoming more educated about pesticides, planting native plants, more people are buying from local bee keepers or becoming hobbyists.”

He points to proliferation of “bee condos” at retail stores as an example of a growing public interest and awareness. “You never used to see those and now people are realizing that we need to help our pollinators.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Bees in the D had a workshop for volunteers in which 100 people showed up to learn about neighborhood projects. “We couldn’t believe that many people came,” says Peterson-Roest, “we had to keep expanding the space.”

Despite the hand-on component to their work, Bees in the D also dabble in some high-tech data work. The group uses Hive Tracks Software to compile data and reports for clients and collect information to contribute to accurate understandings of beekeeping globally. The software allows networks to compare hive management, connecting beekeepers in 150 countries, and track specifics such as mapping where bees are foraging. 

Educating people on the ground, however, is the most important focus, Peterson-Roest says, especially when it comes to dispelling myths and fear. 

“Honeybees are very docile creatures,” he says. “But a lot of people get them confused with wasps. We can coexist.” 

Bees in the D maintains apiaries at Oakland University, University of Detroit, and Martin Luther King Jr High School and have installed four hives and an interactive exhibit at the DNR Outdoor Adventure Center to help teach young students. They even have child-size bee suits for students to visit hives. 

The hives in Sterling Heights are one of three FCA locations in southeast Michigan that host fuzzy friends with Bees in the D, a partnership Peterson-Roest says they are thankful for. 

"FCA understands that part of being a global citizen is caring for the environment," says Mario Macandog, the Sterling Heights Assembly Plant EHS Environmental Specialist. 

"Establishing a honeybee colony on our property was a simple way for our employees to help protect this important part of our ecosystem and play a vital role in biodiversity conservation."  

FCA aren't the only business embracing the buzz around bees. Bedrock Detroit have partnered with Bees in the D, as has the Shinola Hotel group and a Domino’s Pizza branch sponsored school hives at MLK Jr High School. In 2016 the TCF Center (formerly the Cobo Center) installed four hives on its rooftop garden and last year celebrated the city’s beekeeping culture with a fundraising dinner featuring local honey and pollinator dishes.

Next on the agenda for Bees in the D is building a community education center on a vacant lot in downtown Detroit. The project will take five to 10 years, and donors have already started contributing funding. Studio Detroit will design the center using up-cycled shipping containers, and the Detroit Land Bank is helping the group secure land for the initiative. 

“We want it to be a place where people can go to learn, with rooftop hives, but also a community center for functions,” says Peterson-Roest.

“We never expected to get the support that we have but I think the companies, homeowners and residents are realizing the importance of what we are doing,” he says. “That’s fantastic news.”
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