The Festival of the Honey Bee, and the campaign to make Ypsi more pollinator-friendly

A few weeks ago, the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation awarded a grant to local bee activist Jamie Berlin to help ensure that Ypsilant’s Festival of the Honey Bee can continue on into the future. Following is my discussion with Jamie about how the festival came about, what we can expect from this year’s event, and why bees are so damned important.

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MARK: So will this be the second or third annual Festival of the Honey Bee?

JAMIE: The third! Our first event was in 2013.

MARK: And what was the impetus behind that first one?

JAMIE: It got started out of a desire to engage community awareness about bees more broadly, beyond the Ypsi Melissa bee stewardship project that I’d launched in the spring of 2013. I wanted to increase awareness about pollinators, honey bees, native bees, etc., and the role they play in the beauty and abundance we experience everyday. Much of the natural beauty we see, and the delicious, nutritious foods we eat, so many things that add pleasure and joy to our lives, can be linked to pollinator service. Pollinators are beautiful, fascinating creatures that deserve respect and appreciation. So the main goal, right from the start, has been getting that message out.

HoneyBee3MARK: And what else were you hoping to accomplish?

JAMIE: I wanted to start to redefine the relationship between humans and bees, positively–through appreciation, celebration, and creative expression. The festival helps by holding space for this activity in our community. Within the current climate, the majority of honey bees in the US are utilized commercially for pollination services, which means they are subject to a high-stress life, being trucked across the country, only to pollinate toxic fields. So the current system is largely exploitative. Fortunately, many people across the country and world are working for positive change, and the intention of the festival is to be part of that change.

MARK: I wasn’t aware that corporate farms just trucked in bees as they were needed. I assumed that they just maintained hives year-round to pollinate their crops.

JAMIE: And that’s how it used to be, about a hundred years ago–we have descriptions from civil war journals. Anyone who had a farm had bees; hives were prolific; people used wax and honey to pay rent. When beeswax was such an essential part of technology, before plastic and electric lights, homesteads kept bees as a matter of course.

MARK: What can you tell us about your bee stewardship project, Ypsi Melissa? Would I be right to assume that, primarily, you’re setting people up with hives and teaching them how to care for them? Is there more to it than that?

JAMIE: Ypsi Melissa started in 2013 with the aim of “Helping people help bees.” The goal has been to increase access to bee stewardship opportunities for folks in our community who are concerned about the pollinator crisis and who want to make a positive impact, but who may not want to go as far as beekeeping. Bee stewardship opportunities include a honeybee hive host program, bee garden consultation, beekeeping mentoring, pollinator advocacy, and various educational events. The hive host program has been the most popular. As hive hosts, folks offer space in their yard for a beehive and receive increased pollination and a honey share, while Ypsi Melissa does the hive care. Some folks have made the transition from being a hive host to learning beekeeping after experiencing what it’s like to have a hive in the yard. All the beekeeping I do is natural, which in this case means that I do not introduce chemical treatments into the hive. I am a bee-centered beekeeper and someone who will seek practical, innovative solutions.

IMG_3720MARK: Where did the name Ypsi Melissa come from?

JAMIE: Melissa means honey bee in Greek, so that’s part of it. It also carries the idea of a woman in devotion to bees, such as the Melissae in ancient Greece. That’s why I chose it, because it carries that sense of devotion. And I added Ypsi to attach it to place, and with our Greek heritage here, it seemed a nice fit.

MARK: How did you come to be interested in bees?

JAMIE: In June of 2009, I saw the PBS program, “The Silence of the Bees.” Although the program had aired in 2007, it was the first I had heard about Colony Collapse Disorder, and I was completely shocked. Around the same time, Normal Park Beekeeper Lisa Bashert was cited with a violation for keeping bees in her yard, and she mounted a campaign to overturn the classification of honeybees as nuisance animals. I supported her campaign with public comment at City Hall, and, in November of 2009, a beekeeping ordinance was passed for the city of Ypsilanti. The following spring, Lisa and Corrine Sikorski of the Ypsilanti Food Co-op started The Local Honey Project, their volunteer driven beekeeping project. I joined so I could learn more about bees, but also just to do something to help. I had no intention of becoming a beekeeper, launching a project, or anything at that point. I was working on my master’s thesis in Literature at EMU, and it was nice to have a distraction that was purely experiential, almost meditative. However, it wasn’t too long until I fell in love with the bees!

HoneyBee1MARK: And what is it that you love about bees… other than the fact that they’re responsible for a good deal of the food that we eat?

JAMIE: They’re cute, first of all. Some people think they look like teddy bears. And they’re fascinating–their world, the way they cooperate, make decisions, everything–it’s just so fascinating, and has such a beautiful sense to it. I came to admire them. There’s a famous quote that I found to be true… “The life of bees is like a magic well, the more you draw from it, the more it fills with water.” This was said by Karl von Frisch, a German bee researcher working during the mid-twentieth century, who first observed the waggle dance that bees use to communicate about rich forage sources. The more I learned, the more I became a passionate advocate for bees, first honey bees, then native bees, and now I’m becoming interested in butterflies. With the pollinators experiencing unsustainable declines annually for a decade, and with an abundance of potential opportunities for partnerships that will serve the community, the ecosystem, and the pollinators, it feels like very important work. Already this year, amazing things have developed, such as the success of the Bee City USA campaign and the new teaching apiary being launched at the Ypsilanti Township Civic Center. Additionally, this year Ypsi Melissa has taken the plunge, transitioning from being a community project to a non-profit corporation, so there will be changes in the way stewardship opportunities are offered in the future. The plan is to introduce membership levels for folks to select, based on their needs and interests. It’s exciting because it should open the horizon for expanding local access to bee stewardship opportunities and education in our community, as well as access to grants and other funding.

HoneyBee5MARK: And what can you tell us about this year’s Festival of the Honey Bee?

JAMIE: This year’s Festival of the Honey Bee is September 4, 5, & 6, and promises three days packed full of celebrating bees, with something for all ages. Friday kicks off the weekend with the First Fridays Ypsilanti Art Walk, featuring bee art at participating locations for the month of September. Last year, thanks to First Fridays, there were over 12 venues, with chalk art, music, bee costumes, balloon animals (bees, of course), special menus and more! Saturday is about education, and we will be hosting activities for children and adults at the downtown library. In the morning, kids can learn how bees make wax and gather pollen and nectar, their importance for pollination, and all about being a beekeeper, plus taste fresh honeycomb. In the afternoon, we’ll host Dr. Meghan Milbrath, honeybee researcher, coordinator of the Michigan Pollinator Initiative at MSU, and beekeeper of 20 years who focuses on healthy bees and raising local queens. We are pleased to have her as a guest speaker and grateful for our continued partnership with the Ypsilanti District Library. Sunday features the Bike2Bees urban hive bike tour and the Bee Bazaar vendor fair, both based at ABC Microbrewery (Corner Brewery). The bike tour departs and ends at the brewery and features different hive styles with bee yard sites changing year to year. The route is under 5 miles and intended for all fitness levels. It’s a great way to get inspired and see other local bee yards. For Sunday’s Bee Bazaar, we’re excited to partner with ABC Microbrewery again and offer festival goers the chance to enjoy an Ypsi honey beer created especially for the event. Vendors will be on hand with handicrafts, beekeeping equipment, t-shirts, candles, balms, local honey, and lots more. Last year we had a hive raffle, observation hive, door prizes, and a honey harvest demonstration, and we‘ll be featuring similar events this year. For updates, folks should check our Facebook page.

HoneyBee2MARK: The First Fridays tie-in, I think, is really cool. How’d it come about, and how has it evolved over time?

JAMIE: First Fridays hosted the first ever festival Bee Art Show at Bona Sera, September 6, 2013. First Fridays as an organization has grown exponentially since then, and last year FF took on all the outreach and invited all their venues to participate. The result was awesome! Venues like Bona Sera, Beezy’s, and the Riverside Arts Annex, among others, put on amazing, thought-provoking shows. It was a delight to see all the ways artists had been inspired by bees. And it was awesome how the event gave birth to new events within the community. A Honey Bee Bar Crawl happened, thanks to artist Brian Little, and hopefully that will continue over time, folks adding their own creations. I’ve been interested for a long time to add more performance art and / or poetry to the festival, so if anyone has an interest in that area,– or would like to volunteer, submit art, be a vendor, (or find out more information about any aspect of the upcoming festival), please email me at festivalofthehoneybee@gmail.com. We’re looking forward to another year of successful partnerships with First Fridays, the Ypsilanti District Library, and ABC Microbrewery, and excited about new collaborations from the community. Interested individuals, organizations, and businesses should reach out and ask about getting involved.

MARK: You just recently received a $1,000 grant from the Ann Arbor Awesome foundation. What will that money allow you to do?

JAMIE: The Awesome grant will be used to fund 1) printed promotional materials like festival postcards, brochures, posters, and banners, 2) our 2015 festival logo designed by a local artist, and 3) our 2015 festival T-shirts, which we always have done at VGKids. Having the festival T-shirts fully funded will be huge, as it will allow us to recuperate the money earned for investment in next year’s festival, and will set us on a path to financial independence. Building on this, we hope to add enhanced festival offerings in the future, such as adding nationally-known educational speakers and/or artists/performers.

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[This year’s Festival of the Honey Bee will be held across Ypsilanti on the weekend of September 4.]

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11 Comments

  1. Demetrius
    Posted July 15, 2015 at 6:05 am | Permalink

    Many thanks also to Lisa Bashert, who has spent many years raising awareness (and bees!) in our community.

  2. Jean C.
    Posted July 15, 2015 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    This is a fantastic interview! Thank you, Jamie for being such an amazing mentor and for all your dedication to the bees!

  3. Posted July 15, 2015 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    Interesting investigation.

  4. John Galt
    Posted July 15, 2015 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Bees don’t make food. Corporations do.

  5. Eel
    Posted July 15, 2015 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    Yes, we should celebrate Monsanto, not the bees!

  6. Eel
    Posted July 15, 2015 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    (That was snarcasm.)

  7. Eel
    Posted July 15, 2015 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    (Good work, Jamie.)

  8. Lisa Bashert
    Posted July 17, 2015 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    Jamie has blossomed into a remarkable advocate for the honeybees! I am so inspired by her work creatively inventing the model for Ypsi Melissa. She has MASSIVE energy for the bees. Not only Ypsi Melissa and the Festival of the Honeybee, but also she has been partnering with Melissa Sklar and Germaine Smith to help make Ypsi neighborhoods Bee Safe, beginning with Normal Park. If you look on Facebook for Bee Safe Ypsi, you can learn more about this. And Jamie was behind the Ypsi City Council voting to go for a Bee City USA designation (one of the first handful of places in the country to do so, and the first in Michigan). I’m so glad she got the Awesome grant because she really is awesome.

    In fact, a bunch of the volunteers in the Ypsi Food Co-op’s Local Honey Project have started their own entrepreneurial projects involving honeybees and helping pollinators in general. Our “bee whisperer,” Brennah Cavanaugh, is helping to mentor new beekeepers in her homeschool community (she’s our youngest volunteer). Germaine Smith has founded New Bee Apiary through the Tilian Farm Development Project and she’s been an active campaigner for the Bee Safe Neighborhoods effort. And Barb Brown is another volunteer who’s adding Warre Hive building to her carpentry business. If any local beeks want to try beekeeping with the Warre method, Barb is the person to call! So grateful to each of these volunteers for all that they are doing for our pollinators!

  9. Jamie Berlin
    Posted July 21, 2015 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    Thanks to Mark for this interview, and thanks to everyone for supporting my work with pollinators. I’m especially grateful to Lisa Bashert for paving the way with her work on the Beekeeping Ordinance and her work establishing the Local Honey Project. I continue to be inspired by pollinators and by the generosity of volunteers and supporters in the community. Just to clarify, I am not involved in the Bee Safe Neighborhoods campaign. That is being spearheaded by Melissa Sklar of Bee Aware and Germaine Smith of New Bee Apiaries. I am grateful for their efforts. If anyone is interested further in my work, they can connect on facebook, http://www.facebook.com/YpsiMelissa or contact me via email at ypsimelissabees@gmail.com.

  10. Bees by Proxy
    Posted July 22, 2015 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    2015 BEE ART SHOW ~ Call for Art! Please share widely!

    https://www.facebook.com/events/439388889582098/

  11. Posted August 10, 2015 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    Mark, I think that now that Ypsilanti is a Bee City USA (12th in the nation), AND Normal Park is a Bee Safe Neighborhood (6th in the nation, first in Michigan), AND now that the Festival of the Honey Bee is coming up, honeybees should have their own topic heading under Ypsi Living in the sidebar. Since 2009, honeybees have really TAKEN OFF in Ypsilanti.

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