Mendel can, and often does, talk for hours about bees, and since retiring from Johnson Controls in 2008, he's spoken regularly at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. That led to the founding of the Ann Arbor Backyard Beekeepers. The group started with twenty members and now has more than 220. Most have one or two hives, though one has more than fifty. Mendel and his daughter Colette have sixteen between them, with between 40,000 and 60,000 bees per hive.
"There are more women than men beekeepers," says Mendel, "and they're a cross section of ages, from twenties to seventies. Some do it because they have gardens, and it helps with pollination. Some do it for the honey, some for the wax, some for soaps and lip balms. And they all know bees are in distress, and they want to help."
Bees are indeed in distress. Colonies are collapsing across the country at an astounding rate: 31 percent last year. "There are definitely pesticide issues," says Mendel, "but there are also tremendous stress issues. In the thirties and forties, the major product of beekeeping was honey. Now the major product is pollination, and hives are trucked around the country for pollination. This causes tremendous stress to the bees."
That's not a problem for backyard beekeepers. "I lost one hive last year," says Mendel. Though some locals have lost more, Mendel believes that "backyard beekeeping is probably going to save the beekeeping industry."