Q&A: Bees in the D founder on why it’s crit...

Q&A: Bees in the D founder on why it’s critical to build up Detroit’s pollinator population

bee hive being held in front of city skyline

Brian Peterson-Roest and Brian Roest-Peterson (yep, you read that right!) are the founders of Bees in the D, a Detroit-based nonprofit with the mission of installing hives across the region and teaching about the importance of pollinators. 

They manage 175 bee hives at almost 60 locations across Michigan, including 15 rooftops. The robust nonprofit is all volunteer-run. They are also in the process of purchasing some land from the Detroit Land Bank in Core City. The architecture firm Studio Detroit designed an educational community center for the space pro-bono using upcycled shipping containers. Bees will live up on the roof, and people will use the space to gather to learn and socialize. 

Peterson-Roest is also a fifth grade science teacher in Rochester, adjunct professor at Oakland University, and works for the state of Michigan as a camp state licensing consultant. We caught up with him to check out what exactly Bees in the D is all about. 

Brian Peterson-Roest at hive on Bon Bon Bon rooftop. Hamtramck. Courtesy Bees in the D

Planet Detroit: How did you get involved in this? 

Peterson-Roest: When I first started beekeeping, I was struggling with a little bit of personal identity and stuff like that and the bee hives were like my yoga. When you go in them, it’s magic. It’s relaxing. And it slowed me down. Much like my fifth graders, I tend to be very hyper. I really felt like beekeeping almost saved my life. It was so what I needed. 

We [Brian and Brian] moved back to Detroit and a year in, I said, “I think I need to get back to the bees.” There was a lot more information coming out about the colony collapse disorder and the declining populations. So I said, “They gave to me when I needed it, so now it’s my turn to be a voice for the bees.” 

I thought that maybe it would support my hobby and we’d have a couple of hives here and there in the city. But 175 hives later at almost 60 locations, it’s really bloomed. We’re going into our fifth summer. We just never anticipated such a positive and supportive response from the city, organizations, and businesses. It’s just been a whirlwind of awesomeness.  

What is it like being with the bees? 

It’s really magical. That’s why normally, if we didn’t have the COVID situation, we do a lot of hive tours for people where people actually get to put the suits on and go in the hives And, I get it. I’ve been doing this for twelve years and every time I go in I’m like that kid on a playground. 

I don’t even know how to describe it. Every sense is just somehow perked, the smell itself is just, sweet. The sound, you know that light buzz, is just therapeutic. As far as sight, it’s like you’re in awe because you’re watching these superorganisms and large colonies that work together harmoniously in a way that scientists are still studying. 

Humans of course are the most studied living creature on the planet, but honey bees are number two. We can learn so much from them. You’re watching a world that has it figured out. They just work together, and every bee knows it’s role, they know what to do. They’re working for the collective, they’re working for the good of the colony and not for the good of the individual, and I just think that is such an incredible model that this insect seems to understand how to work together in harmony, better than even human beings can. 

How has the state of bees in Detroit shifted since you started this work?

We started an initiative called the Detroit Bee Highway to create waystations for all our pollinators, not just the honeybees. All throughout southeast Michigan, not just Detroit. The waystations can include one of three, or all three: shelter, food, and water. 

Shelter of course would be hives, the native bee houses that you can get at Costco or Meijer, or maybe just a patch in your yard or towards the back of your yard untouched where a lot of the native bees would live. 

Atop Cobo Hall. Courtesy Bees in the D.

For food, we’re challenging people to make plots of bee friendly flowers, wildflowers, and natives, which also helps our butterflies. 

And for water, people are putting out bowls of water with rocks in it so the bees and the butterflies and our pollinators have a place to stop and get a drink. 

The Greening of Detroit wrote a beautiful letter about how once we put hives near their garden on Lafayette, their productivity of food just multiplied like crazy.

Pollinators help to bring fruit to the flower, and if you think about it, that’s helping with the food desert that exists here in Detroit. We have hives at the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative in the North End [of Detroit], and neighbors and residents in the area can come and take all of the food that they harvest in their gardens for free. So the bees are helping to feed people fresh, organic food.

Often a lot of kids and even adults don’t know where our food comes from, and they’re buying foods that are extremely processed. So do educational things with them— sometimes we partner with chefs or nutritionists and they teach the residents how to cook the foods that they’re getting as well. It’s really kind of a cool collaborative effort that we’re so privileged to be a part of.

What are some surprising or interesting hive locations that you’ve built? 

We’re now working with Detroit Metro Airport. A lot of people are surprised by that. The hives aren’t right on airport property, but the airport helps build and manage a park that’s right next to the airport. We’ve already caught two swarms at the airport, right at Delta.

We also have hives at the old Stroh’s ice cream plant on Gratiot, which is now Detroit City Distillery. Last year we took 35 gallons of honey and put it in a bourbon barrel and let it age a few months. That honey, oh my gosh, it was like candy. It had some of that bourbon flavor, and we bottled it up, and then they made a honey bourbon to go with it, and we did an event towards the end of the summer. In 90 minutes, we sold out of everything. We’re excited to do that partnership again because people are constantly calling us asking, “When is it going to be available?” 

What’s your counter argument to people who say honey bees aren’t native to America, so why is it still important to support them? 

It’s really a tough one. Honeybees are on every continent but Antartica now. They’re here, and there’s feral hives. We do support and educate about our native pollinators as well. I really feel when we are helping with the honeybees in providing habitat for them and water sources and educating, we’re also helping with our natives, because by giving habitats, flowers, fields of flowers, working with bedrock downtown to plant more pollinator friendly plants, it is helping our natives like the bumblebees and the mason bees and the leaf cutter bees, and so I think it’s important that people understand that.

If there were no honey bees and it was just the natives, the production [of food] would be much lower which would then drive up the prices. While there are some negatives to having a species of bee that is not native, there’s a lot of positives to it as well, so we try to focus on the positive.

Bees in the D has a variety of events they’re offering online during COVID-19. To learn more and stay up to date you can follow them on social media (Twitter and Facebook: @BeesInTheD, Instagram: Bees in the D), or visit their website: https://beesinthed.com/.