Ypsilanti beekeepers find love, healing, and fulfillment through their hobby

We chatted with local beekeepers about why they love their hobby and how others can get involved in supporting pollinators.
It might be hard to find a city in Michigan that is more enthusiastic about bees than Ypsilanti. 

In 2015 Ypsilanti Township was the first community in Michigan to receive a Bee City designation, and the city of Ypsilanti followed. The designation means the communities are committed to supporting bees and other pollinating insects through education, hosting habitats, and other activities.

Additionally, Ypsilanti is home to an annual Festival of the Honey Bee, sponsored by Ypsilanti's First Fridays organization, and Ypsilanti's Normal Park has a Bee Safe Neighborhood designation. Bee Safe Neighborhoods start with a community survey asking for compliance around not spraying pesticides or insecticides on pollinator plants. The designation also requires a certain amount of contiguous lots to agree to this to earn the designation.
A honey bee at Growing Hope.
Ypsilanti resident Lisa Bashert has been a proponent for local beekeepers for many years. She was hired by the Ypsilanti Food Co-op to establish beehives in the alley behind the co-op and was part of the process that amended city ordinances in 2007 to allow residents to apply for backyard beekeeping permits in the city. She and other residents who made up the Local Honey Project were also involved in the effort to designate Ypsi a Bee City. 

"We had to show that the city was committed to certain steps like forgoing spraying with chemicals, adding pollinator plants annually, and publicizing their support for the planting of pollinator plants," Bashert says. 

Ypsilanti-area residents should be cautious when considering beekeeping as a hobby, though. We chatted with a few local bee enthusiasts who told us beekeeping could change your perspective, turn you into a bee evangelist, or even cause you to fall in love. 

For one couple, bees lead to healing from trauma and falling in love

Ypsilanti beekeeper Eric Spalding says he came home from combat in Iraq "an old and broken soldier with multiple brain injuries and PTSD off the charts," but beekeeping has helped him live in the moment and soothed his PTSD symptoms.

Spalding read a story in 2014 about local hives being vandalized and he wanted to "help or make a difference." He connected to his first beekeeping instructor through his friend Corrine Sikorski, general manager of the Ypsi Food Co-Op. 

"I was able to spend the winter studying and building, way before classes began," Spalding says.

Spalding's son, who is his primary caregiver, helped him get into two beginning beekeeping classes, and then two more advanced classes the following year. It was at a class about raising queen bees that he met his wife-to-be, Cecilia Infante.
Eric Spalding and Cecilia Infante with bee hives at The Farm at St. Joe.
"We fell in love immediately," Spalding says. "We had a passion for the bees and each other."

Infante has been an instructor with the Southeastern Michigan Beekeepers Association for many years and says beekeeping has been "the best therapy" for Spalding's PTSD.

"It's about learning how to be present, and how to be your best at doing something with creatures that do what they do so well," she says. "There's a feeling of gratification knowing you're doing something for the bees. There's a sense of giving back to the community. That's therapy for anybody."

Between the two of them, the couple have bees in three locations. Infante keeps more than 60 hives on her property in Northfield Township, the two keep bees together at the Farm at St. Joe, and Spalding nurtures a couple of hives in his backyard in the Normal Park neighborhood.

They both warn that beekeeping can become a near-obsession.

"Anybody who has been a beekeeper for more than one year gets the outreach bug," Infante says of why she began teaching.

Spalding finds the process of keeping bees deeply rewarding.

"When spring comes and your hives have made it through a Michigan winter, the feeling is overwhelming," Spalding says. "The sense of accomplishment keeps you driving on."

Inspired by the healing power of bees in Spalding's life, the two sell local honey under the name Bee Warriors.

Resources for beginning beekeepers

Bashert notes that area residents who would like to start keeping bees can either be gifted a nucleus hive from another beekeeper or can buy a starter hive. She says beginning Ypsi beekeepers should strongly consider buying local bees rather than importing foreign ones that aren't as well adapted to Michigan's climate. She recommends Detroit-based Green Toe Gardens.

Two of the biggest educational resources for beekeepers in Ypsilanti are SEMBA and Ann Arbor Backyard Beekeepers (A2B2). Though A2B2 has "Ann Arbor" in its name, many members are keeping bees in Ypsi or Ypsi Township, Infante says.

Spalding says that A2B2, which meets at the University of Michigan's Matthaei Botanical Gardens, offers mentors and other valuable resources for beginner beekeepers.
Mohammed Cherri.
Mohammed Cherri raises bees in Pittsfield Township, just over the border from Ypsilanti Township. Four or five years ago, he helped a friend with her hives and she sent one of her hives home with him in thanks, fulfilling a dream he'd had for years to raise bees. Cherri says he appreciated SEMBA for teaching him the "nuts and bolts" of beekeeping that he could then build upon. 

"My SEMBA experience catapulted me into the world of beekeeping," he says. 

It also connected him to his heritage. Once he began keeping bees, he found out that his grandparents had kept bees in their home village in Lebanon.

Beyond beekeeping

Not everyone has an appropriate backyard or lifestyle for beekeeping, but there are other ways to help honeybees, native bees, and other pollinator species. While Ypsilanti nonprofit Growing Hope no longer hosts hives in its urban garden as it did several years ago, bees and other pollinators are incredibly important to the organization's mission. In return, Growing Hope is very supportive of local beekeepers and honey producers, Infante says. She loves vending her honey through Growing Hope's two weekly markets.

"They really support beekeepers who are selling not only honey, but wax, and propolis and other products from the hives," she says. "And as a honey producer, having a commercial venue is great."

Another way to support bees and other pollinators is to plan your yard and garden with those insects in mind.
Charlotte Thurston at Growing Hope.
"I can't overemphasize the importance of pollinators for the food system," says Charlotte Thurston, urban farm coordinator for Growing Hope. "Our farm wouldn't have anywhere near the productivity it has if not for pollinators."

The nonprofit keeps a small but dense pollinator garden at the front of its property at 922 W. Michigan Ave. in Ypsilanti.

"Some things I've been reading talk about how the density of flowers is important, so that patch is pretty cool and is very dense with flowers all year long," she says. "We planted things that could bloom from spring to fall."

Area residents who want to help the bees can follow suit. They should consider cultivating fewer square yards of lawn and leaving more space for pollinator-friendly plants like echinacea and flowering herbs, Thurton says. And nix the pesticides and herbicides, which are linked with ill health in bee colonies.

"It's important for people to recognize the plight of the honeybee is intimately linked to the survival of all the species in the world," Cherri says. "One beekeeper can't do it on their own. Their survival depends on the whole community working together."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Photos by Doug Coombe except photo of Mohammed Cherri courtesy of Mohammed Cherri.
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