Bees in Michigan have had a rough go with pesticides, loss of habitat and more. Here’s how Michiganders are trying to correct the trend.
MICHIGAN—Brian Peterson-Roest is busy as a bee right now.
He’s a fifth-grade teacher with a host of hyperactive kids. He’s a beekeeper with a dedicated garden on his roof. And he’s the founder of Bees in the D, a nonprofit aiming to bring back Michigan’s declining pollinator population.
Now he’s in the process of setting up a bee education center.
“People are realizing that pollinators are pretty darn important to our food industry and the natural world,” Peterson-Roest said.
Michigan has historically been one of the best states for bees thanks to its diverse environment. But pesticides, loss of land, and other factors have decimated bees’ numbers.
That’s what led Peterson-Roest to start Bees in the D and lead comeback efforts.
As a kid, Peterson-Roest always was the nature-loving type—turning over logs, capturing bugs, and playing outdoors. So as a teacher, he jumped at the chance to go up to Beaver Island to learn about teaching bees in his curriculum.
The program, sponsored by Oakland University and the local gardening club, changed his life forever.
“I joke with people: I caught the bug,” Peterson-Roest said.
More than bringing bee-themed science lessons back to his fifth-grade classes, Peterson-Roest reconnected with his childhood passion. And he ran with it, becoming a beekeeper.
Five years ago, amid plummeting bee populations, which saw a half of Michigan’s native bumblebee species decline by 50% or more, Peterson-Roest decided to redouble his pro-pollinator efforts by starting the nonprofit.
“They were there for me at a time of my life. I now want to be a voice for the bees,” he said.
What Bees Mean to People, the Environment
Bees are misunderstood creatures. Many hear buzzing and fear viscious, stinging pests. Really, bees are a crucial part of natural seasons and agricultural production, and they hardly ever sting.
Beekeepers move honeybees from state to state in rotation with crops to pollinate plants and grow food. They’re paid handily for it, too.
In nature, these same bees make trees and flowers bloom and colors change.
More than that, bees aren’t a threat—only stinging in life-threatening situations or to protect their hive. If you don’t see a dead bee after you’ve been stung and if you don’t have to remove a stinger, then it wasn’t a bee that stung you. More likely, a wasp did.
Falsehoods about bees have played their part in peoples’ mistrust of plants’ best friend, Peterson-Roest said. Firsthand, he quickly discovered how peaceful (and critical) bees are during his course on Beaver Island.
“I fell in love with beekeeping. It became my yoga. It became my relaxation,” Peterson-Roest said.
At that time, Peterson-Roest was struggling with his identity. Coming from a traditional, religious family in west Michigan, he says he felt pressure to be something others wanted him to be—something he wasn’t.
A couple of years after he discovered beekeeping, Peterson-Roest met his now-husband, who he calls the “other Brian.” They are known as the “two Bs.”
“That helped actually pave the path for me to be like: It’s OK. This is who I am, to accept who I am,” Peterson-Roest said. “It seems so weird that an insect would help me get to my road, but they really did.”
With the support of his husband, Peterson-Roest launched Bees in the D, installing six urban hives in 2016. Now, the nonprofit is 200 hives strong across five counties in Michigan, with a groundbreaking soon to come for a first-of-its-kind bee education center in Core City.
Out of a converted shipping container, Bees in the D will educate children and visitors about the importance of bees in ecosystems and agriculture, dispelling myths that have suffocated bee population growth along the way.
The nonprofit is kept up entirely by donations and volunteers. Even Peterson-Roest, who travels the country spreading winged wisdom, is unpaid.
One myth that Bees in the D has already put to rest is that bees can’t thrive in cities. The hives he maintains have actually done the best in urban environments as compared to suburban or rural hives, Peterson-Roest said, because a diversity of plant life offers an ample supply of food.
“Even in the plant world, we’re realizing that we need to have a diversity,” Peterson-Roest said. “And I think that models just so beautifully within the human world.”
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Bringing Back the Bees
In recent years, reports have circulated that bees are on the rebound. But Meghan Milbrath, an assistant professor at Michigan State University and coordinator of the Michigan Pollinator Initiative, says she’s seen no evidence of such.
For one thing, honeybees are not native, so their colonies are not necessarily good indicators of the overall health of bees in the state. Michigan has 465 native species, and some haven’t been seen in years. Scientists wonder about the impact of honeybees on native populations.
More has to be done to help these guys out, Milbrath says.
Thanks to education efforts from Peterson-Roest and active state programs, people are starting to realize that bees are under attack.
New legislation from state Senator Rick Outman (R-Six Lakes) will alert beekeepers when high levels of pesticides are in the air. Pesticides are a major reason for bees’ population decline, but they’re often deployed community-wide when a public health emergency is airborne via infected insects.
In 2019 and 2020, Michigan faced an outbreak of Eastern Equine Encephalitis, which has a 33% fatality rate, and had to treat an area with pesticides. Beekeepers were upset when these same pesticides applied to protect people ravaged their hives without warning.
Now beekeepers will be alerted when emergency procedures are underway.
“Through partnership with the Senator, the department can leverage existing technology, which means no additional funding was needed,” Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development Director Gary McDowell said. “I appreciate his support to ensure the viability of Michigan’s important bee population.”
In Your Own Backyard
Bringing Michigan bee numbers back is going to take more than beekeepers and legislators, Milbrath said, especially if you want to see native bees, like bumblebees, long-horned bees and mason bees.
“It really does taking lots of people evaluating [their choices],” Milbrath said.
Bee enthusiasts and educators are going out to inform the public about the role that bees play in agriculture and the environment and how they can help.
As Peterson-Roest has learned, bees don’t only thrive in rural pastures and sprawling farmland. Instead, bees like biodiversity, meaning small, individual gardens can help give native bees the food they need.
In his personal rooftop garden, Peterson-Roest has seen the return of bees, both native and not. That’s not empirical evidence of a comeback, he says, but it does show how one garden can make a difference.
Those interested in protecting native bees can join Michigan State’s Pollinator Champions program. At this website, you’ll learn how you can plant inexpensive, attractive plant features that bees will love.
“I think a lot of people envision that a property just has to be overgrown in this hippie wonderland to be supportive to pollinators, and that doesn’t fit into everyone’s aesthetic,” Milbrath said. “You can fit in pollinator-supportive plants anywhere.”