The buzz is business

Saving bees and rebuilding hives prevents workers from getting stung and keeps the global food supply from going extinct.

Ask most people if they’d be willing to disassemble a hive containing tens of thousands of bees and they’d likely laugh in your face. 

For Shaana Way, owner of Grass Roots Honey Co., it’s just another day at the office. 

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On a recent Saturday afternoon, Way, 27, is driving from her Galesburg farm to Kalamazoo, where construction workers on the I-94 bridge project east of the Westnedge Avenue exit found a large bee hive stuck to the underside of a big hunk of concrete they’d jostled free with a bulldozer.

While she makes her first assessment, two workers who’d called Way to report the hive keep a safe distance.

“We’ll just observe,” says one. 

“Good,” she says. “Because they’re not gonna like this.”

Slowly, carefully, she uses a short-bladed knife to remove pieces of the hive, where she estimates around 20,000 bees have been living for the past few months. She places the honey-soaked pieces in a rectangular box. 

Where the knife couldn’t reach, she scoops bees up with her bare hand, then flicks the writhing, buzzing ball into the box. 

The whole time, she’s on the lookout for the queen.

“Just look for the one with the big butt,” she says. 

The queen emerges, then tries to hide. It takes Way a few moments, but she captures her, placing the queen in a small plastic cage, a short tunnel extending from its top and filled with a sweet, candy-like substance. When the queen is introduced to a new hive, the time it takes the other bees to eat through the substance is usually long enough for them to accept the queen as their own, she says. 

Over the years, Way has performed hive extractions at farm houses, construction sites, under decks behind suburban homes, and wherever she gets called for around $80 each. She also sells various products – mostly honey – on a small roadside stand in front of her home and at farmers markets in the region.   

Work like this is important, not just because people have a tendency to be wary of stinging insects being around, but because of the important roles bees play in the natural world, most specifically pollinating the vast majority of the food supply. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that about 75 percent of flowering plants are pollinated by butterflies and bees. Capturing hives helps ensure they have a fighting chance to be happy and healthy. 

And with issues like so-called Colony Collapse Disorder, diseases spread by mites that can quickly infiltrate and spread through the tight confines of a hive, and being exposed to pesticides, every hive removal is a chance to increase the area’s stock of healthy bees.  

“I love doing this,” Way says. “I love to see how they build their nests in the wild. It’s always different.”

Way, a member of the Kalamazoo Bee Club, has been in the bee business for eight years, first getting involved while interning at the Kalamazoo Nature Center, where she was studying pollination while a biology and chemistry student at Western Michigan University. She was hooked, she says. In addition to keeping bees, she’s one of several club members in the region who perform bee removals. 

“People try to push them in different directions to thrive, to make hives a certain way, but they’re artists. They do their own thing,” she says. “Being a beekeeper is like being in a relationship with the bees. It’s like husbandry. It’s also like chaos sometimes.”

She’s been stung hundreds of times, she says, and is now ostensibly immune to bee venom. 

On the way back to Galesburg, several bees are flying around the inside of Way’s diesel VW wagon. In the back of the property she lives on off of HJ Avenue, she introduces them to their new home – a pink wooden box where they’ll build a new hive, one of about 50 she has at any one time. 

Her goal is to have between 70 and 100 hives, she says, not just to harvest the honey she sells, or the beeswax she turns into candles, or the propolis she turns into tinctures to treat inflammation and boost a person’s immune system. 

Way, who teaches beekeeping, wants to create a space where high school and college-aged students can learn the trade, and perhaps even start their own bee businesses. Given the importance of bees, it’s a trade that’s vital to keep alive. It is a resource-heavy industry, she says, with many of the tools of the trade needing to be built by hand. In the bee business, it’s handy to be crafty. 

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