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Looking closely at, and learning from, Michigan's bees

A rectangular wooden beehive on a stand in a field with bees flying nearby
Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
A demonstration bee nuc at Kropscott Farm in Fremont Michigan on the Great Lakes Bee Company's annual bee pickup day.

Three years ago, Jeff Ollerton had a problem.

We all did. There was a pandemic, and we were all locked in. But Ollerton is a scientist who studies pollinators. He’s written two books, he’s a professor, he travels the world for his research. But in 2020, like the rest of us, he couldn’t travel.

So he had to try something else.

“I started to spend more time in my garden, started to observe more and more closely than perhaps I had done before” he says, on a video call from outside Copenhagen, where he now lives and teaches. “My wife is a therapist, and she always talks about mindfulness. And yeah, just mindfully sitting in the garden, observing what is there on your doorstep.”

What’s on his doorstep was probably a little different than what’s on yours or mine. He was living in the UK at the time, in the county of Northamptonshire.

But what made us want to track him down all the way across the Atlantic, is what happened next.

He took this idea — just observing the garden — and he recruited other ecologists to do the same. They’d record what they found.

Eventually, they had researchers from 14 countries, six continents. They recorded tens of thousands of pollinator observations.

"Many of them said we’re seeing things that we didn't know were there within the gardens."
Jeff Ollerton, ecologist and author, on the experience of pollination researchers who surveyed their own gardens during the early months of the pandemic.

And here’s the thing: when all these experts got together and just started looking at what was closest to them, they made a bunch of new discoveries.

Ollerton himself found a red-girdled mining bee one day in his garden — a bee he’s pretty sure hadn’t been spotted in his county in decades.

“Those sort of stories were repeated over and over again by all of these very experienced ecologists who were out there surveying in their garden. Many of them said we’re seeing things that we didn't know were there within the gardens — plants as well as insects. And so I think it's a nice demonstration of the way in which the more closely we look at things, the more we actually see.”

Honey bees fly near two wooden hive boxes in a field.
Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
Bees wait to be picked up at the Great Lakes Bee Company's annual bee pickup day in Fremont.

The more closely we look, the more we see. It is something bees can teach us.

It is a good time to look closely at bees. Saturday is — officially — World Bee Day, declared so by the U.N.

And right here in Michigan, one of the biggest bee events of the year just wrapped up in the small city of Fremont.

Hundreds of beekeepers showed up for the annual bee pickup day put on by the Great Lakes Bee Company.

We visited the event to find out from a few Michigan beekeepers what they’ve discovered by looking more closely at bees.

You can hear the full story on today’s Stateside podcast here.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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