“I hate honey,” says Richard Mendel, the king bee of Ann Arbor’s backyard beekeepers.
“But I like bees,” Mendel adds. “They’re the most amazing creature that exists.”
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.”
To get started with beekeeping, Mendel recommends coming to the classes the Beekeepers offer at Matthaei. “Some people think they can do it on their own. But they can’t. There are good books out there, but there’s no substitute for taking a class with us.
“We limit it to forty people, and we don’t let anybody fail,” continues Mendel. “There’s no charge, but it costs about $500 to start up, including the hive, the jacket with veil, and a small swarm of ten to fifteen thousand bees.” The hive itself is a series of stacked boxes six to nine inches deep and nineteen inches long, containing eight- to ten-inch-wide frames of honeycombs. Depending on depth, each box weighs between forty and eighty pounds full.
What about getting stung? “I get stung every time I go into the bees,” says Mendel, “but that’s because I disturb them. Also, if it’s been raining so there’s no pollination and no nectar, they don’t want to be disturbed. But if it’s one o’clock in the afternoon on a sunny day, and the honey’s flowing, they’re happy, and nothing’s going to happen.
“You can tell they’re happy because they make a rhythmic humming sound. But if they’re making an agitated sound, a dissonant buzzing, I stay away!”