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Detroit has thousands of vacant lots. Here’s why some are becoming honeybee farms.

Nicole Lindsey, co-founder of Detroit Hives, harvests raw honey from a vacant city lot that the organization turned into a bee farm. (Detroit Hives)

After nearly two months, Timothy Paule Jackson’s cold and cough still would not go away.

It was December 2016, and Jackson had tried every type of medication and home remedy he could think of — garlic, turmeric, lemon, ginger and more. Nothing worked. Then he went to a local convenience store to buy snacks, and the owner suggested he eat local, raw honey.

Eager to try anything that might help, Jackson gave it a shot. His cough dissipated within a few weeks. He started researching raw honey and learned that some people used it to soothe throats, replace sugar as a slightly healthier alternative and heal inflamed skin.

Jackson’s city of Detroit, meanwhile, was seeking residents and nonprofit organizations to buy 90,000 vacant lots for a low price in areas where the city could not afford to lure developers. Although Detroit has seen a wave of new investors since 2013 when it filed for bankruptcy, 38 percent of its residents still live below the poverty line. Jackson and his girlfriend, Nicole Lindsey, thought about turning one of the vacant lots into something trendy, like a peacock farm or an urban campsite.

Then, an idea struck them: They would buy vacant land and turn it into a bee farm to produce raw honey. The raw variety is different from processed honey because raw honey usually has not been heated or filtered, and is thought to be more nutritious.

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The pair’s project became Detroit Hives, a nonprofit group that transforms empty lots into homes for both honeybees and native bee species — simultaneously working toward revitalizing the economically depressed city, increasing raw honey production and educating community members about the importance of bees in the environment. Bees pollinate crops and natural plants to help them grow and ensure they produce seeds.

Jackson, 35, and Lindsey, 36, are now seeking to rebuild their hometown one beehive at a time, and to encourage others to join the cause.

“When the residents begin to see that somebody cares about their neighborhood that they’re cleaning up,” Lindsey said, “it’s going to prompt them to do the same.”

In addition to being eyesores, Detroit’s vacant lots also pose a danger to children who wander around them — and they actually harm residents’ mental health, Jackson said. Converting vacant lots in Philadelphia into green spaces recently decreased residents’ feelings of depression by about 42 percent, according to a study from the University of Pennsylvania. In neighborhoods below the poverty line, feelings of depression decreased by more than 68 percent.

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Detroit Hives began with a $1,600 grant from Detroit SOUP, which Jackson and Lindsey won after competing in a “Shark Tank”-like dinner where local entrepreneurs present project proposals and guests vote on which initiative should receive funding.

The pair said they took a one-day intensive beekeeping class and immediately bought three hives with up to 60,000 honeybees each, plus equipment, for about $1,200. They started squatting on a 5,000-square-foot plot of land made of three vacant lots, which they had not yet bought, Jackson said.

In summer 2017, Jackson and Lindsey took a three-month beekeeping course where they learned the difference between queen bees and worker bees, how to treat bees facing diseases or pests, and how to extract honey. While they were taking the class, the pair paid $340 to buy the land on Detroit’s east side and cleaned it up.

“We were revitalizing Detroit while the bees were revitalizing the flowers and the community,” Jackson said.

Detroit Hives is now a full-time job for Jackson, whose background is in advertising, and Lindsey, who earned a psychology degree and has worked in customer-service jobs. The nonprofit group is funded through scholarships, grants, donations and tours coordinated through Airbnb.

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The project has expanded, and Detroit Hives now has 35 hives at nine vacant lots, schools and community gardens across the city. Jackson and Lindsey also have transformed some of their sites into urban gardens to be pollinated by the more than 450 bee species native to Michigan.

Honeybees are not native to the United States, so Jackson said he and Lindsey sometimes “give them a helping hand.” If the bees are building too much honeycomb, the pair trim it off so parts of the hive don’t stick together and make inspecting them difficult. They check for diseases, make sure the queen is laying eggs and ensure the bees have enough food for the winter.

The best time to harvest the honey is when the bees can have at least 50 pounds for themselves, Jackson said. This point typically falls in September, and the pair expect to collect about 300 pounds of honey this year.

Detroit Hives sells its honey online, at farmers markets, on tours and through the food-delivery service DoorDash, which Jackson said transports the sweet nectar “from the hive to their doorstep.” They also sell honey to local restaurants.

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Detroit Hives has educated more than 2,000 students about the importance of bees and has hosted more than 500 tours for city residents and visitors, Jackson said. The city has honored the group with a Spirit of Detroit Award.

Jackson and Lindsey have big goals for Detroit Hives: They want to revitalize 45 of the city’s vacant lots, increase their number of hives to 200, get more of their honey in stores and help establish Detroit as a “bee-friendly city” as designated by the initiative Bee City USA.

DeAndre’ Calvert, who works in the University of Michigan’s Program in Practical Policy Engagement, plans to take his students to Detroit this semester to research tax credits that would encourage people to plant native flowers and not spray pesticides on their lawns. They also will help Detroit Hives apply for grants.

“In certain areas, there are so many quality-of-life issues that the environment isn’t one that’s being paid attention to,” Calvert said. He said he hopes Detroit Hives will help “people to realize that it does impact you, too.”

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