A sweet deal: Urban beekeeping on the rise

While most of us acquire our honey at the grocery store or the local farmer’s market, there is a growing group of residents in the Capital region who get their honey from their own backyards. And while it may take a little extra effort - the rewards - as they say, are sweet!

Urban beekeeping is now the fastest growing segment of beekeeping in general, and quickly gaining in popularity as more people realize the health benefits of consuming locally sourced honey.

Lansing southsider, Sara Huber, has gone from "discussing whether or not we should have a beehive in the garden" to "trying to figure out how many hives is too many" in the course of one summer. Huber, her husband Dale and their two children are the proud owners of six hives. "We actually had seven, but one of them was robbed by other bees, so now we’re down to six. Maybe next summer we’ll get another one. Or two."

Huber ordered her first unassembled hive from Turtlebee and Honeytree Farms, which her husband promptly used as a template to create more. He then built every one of their hives and frames himself. The Hubers also offer swarm extraction services to Lansing area residents. "It’s how we got four of our swarms." Huber smiles, "out of the walls of old houses."

Because they are so new to beekeeping, they haven’t started selling their honey yet, but it’s part of the plan for next year. "We are offering honey comb for sale right now, but the honey we’ve extracted so far just isn’t enough to carry us through the winter and have leftovers to sell. But we'll keep everyone updated via our facebook page as soon as there's enough honey to start selling.". They have also started offering beeswax for sale, which Huber extracts in her homemade solar melter on the back porch. "There are so many uses for this stuff, it’s just wonderful!"

Lansing, as a city, has no ordinances limiting bee ownership, and the state of Michigan does not require that residential hive owners register their hives or undergo an inspection. As a result, beekeeping in Lansing is relatively straightforward and free of red tape. The Michigan Beekeepers’ Association does recommend, however, that if you are going to invest in owning bees, you should first join a local club to learn more about beekeeping.

Not all area beekeepers have the benefit of Lansing’s bee-friendly ordinances, however. Nicole Sclafani Szymczak and her family live in Bath Township and own two hives. Their bees, however, live on a friend’s property somewhere else. "We were very vocal at the last town meeting, trying to get this law overturned, but I don’t think they’re going to budge on it." she says. "But the bees are doing wonderfully where they are, surrounded by lilac bushes and lavender flowers, so it’s not a bad thing, just a different challenge."

Szymczak and her husband, Mark, have been beekeepers for a couple of years now.They were given their first hive by an MSU PhD student who moved to Maine and needed a good home for his bees. Mark spent a summer with him learning the ropes before taking over the hives himself. Their two hives are doing really well, producing about 120 pounds of honey a year, which is considered above average for a healthy hive. For now, they just give away their honey as gifts, half pound jars to all of their friends for Christmas. "I designed these cute little labels for all the honey jars." Szymczak says. "Our daughter’s name is Cosette and so we named our hives C’s Bees after her. I've started making lip balm with our beeswax. It's so easy and I really enjoy it.".

Kate Cosgrove, Lansing-based artist and illustrator, has also recently joined the ranks of Lansing's beekeepers. "I've always been interested in insects. As a kid I kept bug collections and when I started college at MSU I actually considered entomology, but art won out." She learned the ropes from a professional beekeeper who allowed her to shadow him for an afternoon while he worked with his bees. Cosgrove fell in love instantly and started saving up to buy her first hive.

Before installing her first swarm, Cosgrove took a day long "intro to beekeeping" seminar with Mike Risk, the President of COMB, the Center of Michigan Beekeepers. "It was very informative," says Cosgrove. "I learned everything I needed to know about the basics of beekeeping." And with that, Lady Beard Bees was born. "As of now I only have one hive. But I learned at the seminar that the average healthy hive has about 60,000 bees, so I like to say that I have 60,000 bees because it sounds way more dangerous and impressive than just saying I have one hive," Cosgrove smiles.

Aside from classes and seminars offered by a variety of local bee clubs, a few minutes online will reveal a wealth of beekeeping information posted by bee enthusiasts around the state. The Michigan Beekeeping Association website includes a whole list of plans and instructions on how to build everything from a solar wax melter to a little protective cage, to tips on keeping a new queen bee safe. There is also an extensive forum where questions are encouraged and answers are provided promptly and with great attention to detail. After all, with the plight of the honey bee still a very real problem today, beekeepers are only too happy to demystify the world of beekeeping, involving everyone in the search for solutions. One of which is most certainly a return to urban beekeeping.    

Sarah Hillman is a freelance writer for Capital Gains.

Photos © Dave Trumpie
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
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