Author: Toni Burnham
All beekeeping is local, even urban beekeeping. And urban beekeepers? Among ourselves, we certainly see differences between sites on rooftops and in parks and can smile at being looked at like heroes. To the public, and to beekeepers in other settings, we probably seem pretty similar, however.
But we really aren’t. My bees live in a city where green movements are often associated with long term residents having to leave their neighborhoods at about the same pace that newcomers establish community gardens. To some long-term residents, we may look like an invasive, non-native species. In “boom” cities, it’s also harder to find apiaries, as both empty lots and garden spaces get developed into buildings, and the chance to keep bees for the folks who aren’t being lifted by the boom fades.
Nicole Lindsey and Timothy Paule of Detroit Hives, however, have proven in just a couple of years that beekeeping can help restore existing urban communities, and that greening, like beekeeping, can belong to everyone. Unlike most beekeepers, they conceived this project as public from the beginning. That created something special: a mission that extended from their own personal, physical and spiritual well-being to that of an entire city – including native and managed pollinators. The connections and possibilities just keep growing.
“We’ve been doing this for two years and four months, and I won’t count the seconds or the minutes. So we’re fairly new to this. But one of the things that honestly excited us is that it is really interesting to learn about bees! It’s also therapeutic, and truly calming. We get excited about learning something new, and sharing it,” says Timothy Paule.
Detroit Hives is re-growing the city, and building up its residents, their neighborhoods, and entire communities. And the honey is dope.
It could have been peacocks, but then he got a cold
Timothy Paule and Nicole Lindsey, co-founders, are natives with a deep commitment to their hometown. Nicole also points out, “we also seek spiritual connections, approaching things with a spirit of ‘yes.’”
Detroit, however, is a community fighting back from a long decline. The city lost 60% of its population in the decades since 1950. Today it has 75,000+ vacant lots with no budget for rehabilitation. However, through the Detroit Land Bank Authority it’s now possible to acquire vacant lots at low cost. Mr. Paule and Ms. Lindsey began to develop a course of action.
Timothy, who is a professional photographer, shares, “Nicole and I wanted to create a unique experience that you couldn’t find in the city of Detroit, so community residents could take advantage of it. We thought about starting a peacock farm, an urban camp, or an outdoor photography studio.”
Says Paule, “I’d been in the for-profit world for about 12 years, being creative behind the scenes. It was great for a while, but I was spending hours and days and weeks staring at a computer screen, and it was weakening my eyes.”
“I wanted to find natural ways of curing myself, like sun gazing and the practice of grounding – taking off your shoes and placing your feet on sun-charged earth. I also wanted to be more optimistic: I was a little depressed and had lost a lot of family.”
“In learning to be more spiritual, and more grateful, I learned that I had to be in nature. While sungazing I would hear the birds chirping: I wanted to be outside.”
Then, in December 2016, Paule got a cough and cold that wouldn’t quit, the usual remedies not helping. A Ferndale store owner took pity and gave him a jar of local honey and an education in its health benefits. Paule got better, then he and Lindsey decided to learn more about bees and honey.
“It wasn’t until I got sick that we came across the idea of local, raw honey, because that’s what helped me. That idea began to grow beyond just providing honey for myself. There’s opportunity to educate people about raw honey, but you can’t do that without educating them about honey bees and how they make it. They have to spiral in deeper and deeper, and that’s when we formed Detroit Hives,” Timothy shares.
“When we started, the city had more than 90,000 vacant lots. We wanted to do something cool, we wanted to do something to bring the community together, we wanted to do something to address issues of blight.”
Nicole adds, “There was a problem that we see in our city, there was a problem that we see in our bees. What we are doing here is solving both of those problems.”
In early 2017, Lindsey and Paule decided to start an urban bee farm for the community “to experience, firsthand, honey bees, conservation, and their role in our ecosystem.” But things went a bit faster than planned.
“At first,” says Timothy, “We didn’t know where to start. We didn’t even know what the title was for this particular job or industry. We had to Google apiculture, apiology, all that jazz. We came across two local beekeeping associations: the Michigan Beekeepers in Kalamazoo, a couple of hours away, and the Southeastern Michigan Beekeeping Association in Livonia, only 30 minutes. In March we contacted their president, Roger Sutherland, who has since passed.”
“We said, ‘We are so excited, we want to create these bee parks, but we need to take courses!’ He told us that we would love for us to study with them, but the classes were full!”
“He recommended two classes that were closer: one from Green Toe Gardens – a single day, eight-hour session, followed by hands-on courses. The second class was a ‘Sweet on Detroit’ course over three months with hands on experiences and a certification. We figured that it would be great to take both.”
Nicole mentions, “One of the reasons that we took the second course was that we felt a day of instruction wasn’t enough, and we wanted more experience and a certification. Three months may not be enough instruction, either, you know?”
“There is nothing they can teach which is like actually keeping bees. You can learn and learn and you can get over fears. You can make a lot of mistakes from just doing it.”
Timothy mentions a surprise that moved things forward, fast: “When we took the one-day course, it turned out we were in for a treat! At the end, they wanted us to have bees. “
Nicole: “We were like, ‘No, we are NOT ready to keep bees! We just took one course!’”
Timothy: “But the teacher had already ordered them, and she was really instrumental in getting us to be bee parents really early!”
Timothy remembers, “We were in a place where we were trying to say ‘yes’ to the universe. We’d said ‘yes’ to the course, ‘yes’ to a park, and so we said ‘yes’ to the bees, even though we were not ready for them.”
Having bees of their own made a big difference during their second course! “It was great, because we could ask all these questions, and we had our bees we could go back to our apiary and do everything that we learned in class and apply it,” says Nicole.
“So we had all the classes, we had the hands-on experiences, and then the class had a bee club. We got extended support: there were several beekeepers who had taken the course who were there to provide advice and mentorship,” adds Paule.
“’Sweet on Detroit’ is a city program under the Keep Growing Detroit initiative, and it was hands on. We would go inside the hives to learn how to work bees: that type of hands on made it a whole lot easier and made us a whole lot more comfortable.”
At first, Detroit Hives set up on land that was not yet theirs. According to Nicole, “We started with two hives from packages, and then we started a third from a nuc about a month later. We found that the nuc was a lot easier to start, but with a package you get all the experiences – dumping bees in, finding the queen cage, making sure that you have the marshmallow in right, checking on release.”
Timothy notes: “Nicole actually installed the packages the first time, by herself!”
Paule adds, “What’s great about this project is that it also includes a role for native bees. There are so many native plant species in these vacant lots that it has already been proven that it is boosting bee populations.”
The seed money for their first apiary came from a grant from Detroit SOUP, a community group which selects grantees who make pitches at a large dinner gathering. Since then, Detroit Hives has actively sought and received grants and regular volunteer support to acquire bees, equipment, land, and to improve and build on their lots. Their East Warren Apiary was a blighted, abandoned lot that they improved with fencing, murals, and an eco-dome to facilitate all-weather education, done substantially with the help of volunteers.
Don’t ask, don’t tell
Though not the first beekeepers in the city, Detroit Hives was the first to establish a public apiary. Timothy explains, “Keeping bees in Detroit is being reevaluated. Right now, they are considered livestock. If there are complaints, you will probably have to shut down.”
“When setting up, it truly was a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ situation. There was no model in place for apiaries in the city. What’s good about our project is that we put it on vacant land. A lot of these areas have blocks and blocks of vacancies, so there are few neighbors to complain.”
Lindsey adds, “When we first started, the neighbors were so excited that we were actually cleaning up the lots and clearing out the blight . . . They were grateful that we were cleaning and beautifying the neighborhood. Vacant lots are really hurting the community.”
Paule confesses, “The thing is, you do get neighbors who aren’t excited about bees. It’s about 50/50, people excited and people afraid. Some just misidentify bees as wasps or hornets. We have lots of neighbors who know about both honey bees and native bees and understand their value and importance. They have flowers and they have gardens themselves, and they see that they can increase their yields by having bees. They are also excited for their children having an outdoor place for learning. They can see the bees, get hands on experiences, all within walking distance.”
Detroit Hives is also an innovative user of Airbnb Experiences: the popular lodging platform matches them with visitors who pay for apiary visits and the experience of inspecting a hive. Exciting, memorable education and outreach is a contributor to their economic sustainability.
Detroit Hives currently has apiaries that range from four colonies to single hives, more and more placed at sites where the bees support the work of partner organizations that are providing fresh produce in “food desert” areas.
“We now have 35 hives at nine locations in the city of Detroit: vacant lots, schools, and community gardens.” Their goals are much greater: they would like to have 200 hives in 45 locations within five years.
“At every single location, we are planning to create educational wildflower pollinator habitats. There will be spaces where children can plant flowers: we want to establish a garden club that is responsible for maintaining the habitat at each location. It creates ownership, sustainability and hope.”
A buzzing, green future
Lindsey and Paule want to continue to grow their experience and skills, and to work with partners like BeeInformed and research universities to bring more knowledge in and share their lessons elsewhere. Both want you to know, “We do have a five-year goal and plan in place. Detroit Hives wants to establish a Learning Center in order to teach all year. Most of our educational opportunities are now outside, but we need a facility in order to teach year-round.”
For that and to get to 45 locations, “We will need lots of partners, lots of funders, and also beekeepers to help. We can’t do it all ourselves: we want to hire experienced beekeepers to train others to manage our hives. We already know what it will look like, we already know where we want to place it, right now we need to attract those funders and the dollars to make it happen.”
In interviewing Timothy Paule and Nicole Lindsey, it was astonishing how their roots in the city, ties to each other and the community, and sense of history and the future are seamlessly interwoven. Their work and that of their bees is already educating children, putting fresh produce on the plate in homeless shelters, increasing yields in community gardens.
Nicole quickly added, “We know Detroit will not have lots of vacant lots forever. We want to be sure that the city has the green infrastructure necessary to support the honey bees and native bee population in the future.”
Timothy: “We have launched a campaign, ‘Detroit is the Place to Bee,’ and are working to become a Bee City USA. Support in general from the beekeeping community, including letters of support for bee city, would be amazing!”
“As Detroit natives, we feel that we have been a bee city for a few years, we just want to make it official!”