If you've ever enjoyed a drink with honey at the Argus Farm Stop cafe, you know how sweet Back 40 Bee Farm can be. The honey Argus uses from Back 40 is raw, made in small batches, and bee-friendly, and the farmer, Mike Benedict, wouldn't have it any other way. “I put the bees first,” he explained, as we sat down to talk about the chemical-free practices he uses on his family bee farm.
Mike keeps thirty-five hives on his land in the southwest corner of Washtenaw County, where back roads wind along wetlands and horse farms. He has been keeping bees there since 2001, although he has been interested in beekeeping since he was a kid, when his grandfather kept hives of his own. Now Mike and his wife Kathryn live in an artsy, high-ceiling house they designed themselves, on a property that includes ponds hopping with frogs, gorgeous flowers, and a small vegetable garden. They also keep chickens and hogs as part of their drive toward self-sufficient living, although honey is the only product they sell. Mike also teaches art history and ceramics at Pioneer High School, a job which he seems to love as much as his bees.
Local, raw honey like Mike's is a much different product than the generic honey you might find elsewhere, as raw honey's lack of heating and processing leaves the vitamins, nutrients, and enzymes intact. There may also be evidence that local honey is good for seasonal allergies. (Raw honey is available in two forms, liquid or cream, which both offer health benefits. And if honey ever solidifies, it is easy to gently reheat the honey to a liquid form). Mike said he is glad that Argus customers are staying clear of non-local, generic honey, which often comes from overseas, and may not include much real honey in the product at all.
In contrast, Mike takes pride in knowing exactly what goes into his product. The bees can fly up to two miles in their search for flowers, but they don't have to fly that far on his land, which is rich with wildflowers. While he supports urban beekeeping – which is happily allowed in Ann Arbor – he likes knowing that his bees gather nectar far from pesticides and city air. He explained that the bees have taught him about the local flora, as they seek out different flowers depending on what is blooming at that point in the season. There was one year that the trees flowered early, and the honey from that nectar was crystal-clear. During some summers an abundance of lavender makes the honey especially flavorful, and later in the season, asters and goldenrod often turn the honey darker and richer. These variations are just another tasty advantage to local honey!
Mike seems to know everything there is to know about bees, but he learned the practice by making, as he put it, “lots of mistakes.” Now he is an advocate of raising strong bees, and doesn't use chemicals to save a weak hive, as those substances will end up in the honey and wax and ultimately weaken the bees' immune systems. Instead he prioritizes natural bee health, and aims to raise bees that don't require antibiotics or other medications, unlike many large bee farms.
Another part of Mike's method for healthy bees is breeding his own queens. When a hive loses its queen, due to old age or other factors, the lack of pheromones prompts the hives to feed some larvae royal jelly. Several queens are created, although the first queen to emerge usually kills the other larvae. Instead Mike removes the larvae and is able to harvest additional queens, meaning that he doesn't have to acquire queens from an unknown, outside source. Interestingly, Mike mentioned that many people don't realize that honeybees are a non-native, European species, and that many native bees actually exist, although they are mostly smaller and rarely noticed.
As an advocate for bees, Mike isn't a fan of corporate beekeeping, which involves chemicals, transporting hives, and limiting the gene pool – all practices which produce stressed, weaker bees. (In a rather elegant comparison, the art history teacher side of him likens this damaging “mass production” to Andy Warhol's screen prints, with their systematic reproduction of a single image.) Additionally, the bees used for agriculture have access to only one crop at a time, while a diversity of pollen and nectar makes for a healthier diet.
In Michigan, one major challenge of raising bees is the harsh winters. Bees will not defecate in their hive, so they need one day at least every two months over the winter when the temperature goes over 40 degrees. Then they leave for a “cleansing flight,” which looks, afterward, exactly how you might expect! But it's no laughing matter if the weather stays too cold. Two winters ago, the average hive lost in Michigan was at 90% due to persistent freezing temperatures, although Mike lost only 20% of his hives, thanks to the health of his bee stock.
Indeed, beekeeping is a lesson in ceding control to nature. This rainy summer, for example, hasn't been ideal for beekeeping, as the bees need sunshine for their “fly time.” In fact, they have already produced much less honey than by the same time last year. But Mike finds beekeeping rewarding nonetheless, and said that he has “learned so much about life” from the bees. For example, he talked about how the bees put the good of the hive above themselves, and will fly away if they are sick, not wanting to infect their sisters. The more you know, the more the complex workings of a hive seem nothing short of miraculous.
With his enthusiasm for bees, Mike hopes more people will explore backyard beekeeping. But he encourages them not to use chemicals, and to keep more than one hive, because failures are a normal part of beekeeping. He also suggests taking more caution than he does not to get stung – for instance, don't mess with the bees during weird weather or during the evening, and don't breathe on them! But even with a few stings, for the right person the rewards of beekeeping are worth the work.
Mike says he is “honored” that Argus uses his honey – so much honey, in fact, that it sometimes uses up his entire supply! But he isn't trying to make a living from his product, and in fact, he doesn't want to. Expansion would mean more costs, and less of a personal touch with his bees. Plus, he wants the product to be affordable for anyone who wants it, as he hopes more people will experience the health and flavor benefits, while supporting happy bees and pollinated ecosystems. “Local honey is worth the investment,” he said. Take it from someone who knows!