Detroit Hives Beekeepers Look to Insects for Lessons on Perseverance

Bees also have to face a lot of uncertainty
detroit hives
Detroit Hives cofounder Nicole Lindsey (above) and partner Timothy Jackson hope to change perceptions of what a beekeeper is “supposed to look like.” // Photograph by Timothy Paule

The plan was to gather in large numbers, just as the bees do. I had been keeping in touch with Timothy Jackson and Nicole Lindsey, the founders of the nonprofit Detroit Hives, for a few months about finding the right time to meet. March seemed like a sensible idea. The weather was breaking — winter coats were being swapped out for less puffy ones — and the bees were itching to leave their hives, where they would encounter humans once again. And they would, or so Jackson and Lindsey thought. A group of Penn State students were slated to visit in mid-March, the first of many scheduled educational visits in 2020.

Jackson was elated. “It’s going to be great. We have like 50 students coming,” he said.

These gatherings are, in many ways, why Jackson and Lindsey do what they do: to get folks together so they can pass on their love of bees, especially to those who might not be exposed to nature. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Penn State visit had to be canceled.

When we finally met, on March 13, it was a few days before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s order to shut down public spaces. Some cafés were already closed. Above a laundromat-café called The Commons, we sat in an eerily empty community space. Jackson wore blue surgical gloves. Both had on T-shirts that said, “Detroit Is the Place to Bee.” We kept our phones in front of us, trying not to look at the surreal news notifications each of us was receiving.

“Did you know that we have the No. 1 experience on Airbnb in Detroit?” Jackson said, shaking his head in disbelief, referring to the paid outings they organize that would now likely not happen. “We get people from France, from England, from everywhere.”

Both were shocked at the sudden spread of the novel coronavirus. But in some ways, they had each seen a changing world coming. In fact, the bees had told them.

Neither grew up with a love of bees. Jackson, 36, and Lindsey, 37, were born and raised in Detroit to families that originally came from the South. Jackson worked for years in photography, graphic design, and marketing; Lindsey worked in optometry.

Because of various illnesses that beset his family, Jackson lost a lot of his relatives in a short period of time. He began to distrust the U.S. healthcare system and started looking for alternative cures, especially for depression. He read up about the benefits of being outside, and as he spent more time outdoors, he saw how it lifted his mood.

At the time, in 2016, there was a citywide effort to revitalize Detroit, including a push to use up the tens of thousands of vacant lots that were available for sale, some for as little as $100. They wanted to do their part, to give back to the city they love, so they decided to come up with some solutions.

“Peacock farm,” Lindsey said, laughing.

That was one of their first ideas. They also considered an urban campsite, an outdoor photography studio, and a community garden.

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Detroit Hives photograph by Timothy Paule

But later that year, Jackson got sick and developed a stubborn cough. Frank Poota, the owner of the 9 & Hilton Market in Ferndale, near Jackson’s work, suggested he try honey. Jackson did, and his cough went away.

It was Lindsey who suggested they buy an empty lot and start an apiary, where bees are kept in beehives. The idea seemed crazy since neither of them knew anything about bees and both were a little afraid of them. Ultimately, the idea of starting a Detroit-based apiary stuck because it was, in Jackson’s words, “cool, creative, and unique.”

A few months later, in 2017, they pitched the idea to Detroit Soup, an organization that hosts community dinners where creatives pitch their ideas to compete for a small, donation-funded grant. They won and received $1,600. “I was like, ‘Oh, now we need to do this,’ and we started Googling right away,” Jackson said, laughing.

They enrolled in a beekeeping course, bought an empty lot for $340 on Detroit’s east side, and started with 60,000 bees. Three years later, they now have an operating budget of $350,000 and run apiaries in 11 locations across Detroit. Their latest project is a motor-themed pollinator garden, a nod to Michigan’s automotive history. They were hoping to launch this summer, but so much is uncertain right now, given the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bees have also had to face a lot of uncertainty, Jackson reminded me. Because of irregular weather patterns caused by global warming, bees are often confused about which season it is. As a result, they might come out of (or go into) their hives at the wrong time. It’s one of the things Jackson and Lindsey share with students and visitors alike: that bees can teach us how to survive, how to adapt and work together, and, most critically, how to understand our changing planet.

But this is not the only goal of Detroit Hives. They also want to shift perceptions about what a beekeeper is “supposed to look like,” as Jackson said. Early on, they began researching examples of black beekeepers throughout history, both in the U.S. and in Africa, and they regularly share those stories in their presentations.

Their efforts have paid off. Lindsey pulled out her phone and showed me a photo of a young African American girl dressed up at a school science fair as Dr. Charles Henry Turner, a 19th-century African American biologist and beekeeper from Ohio.

“It’s everything, isn’t it?” Lindsey said, beaming.