The Buzz on Chicago’s Bees

By Amy Mikel in Miscellaneous on Apr 22, 2008 5:00PM

Even before Chicagoland got its first 70 degree day of the year, area beekeepers were preparing for spring. Beehives—like the ones on the roofs of City Hall and the Chicago Cultural Center, in Garfield Park Conservatory, and the 100-plus hives in a North Lawndale co-op community— have already been checked to make sure the bees have survived the winter and have enough food to last them until the first dandelions, willows, and soft maples bloom. Keepers have cleaned and medicated the hives as necessary and might have ordered a few more thousand bees or a new queen, which are shipped through the U.S. Postal Service.

IMG_2229B.jpgKeeping a beehive can be a very relaxing and rewarding activity and an important environmental contribution, since there is concern about the honey bee population decreasing. Plants depend on pollination for survival, and crops like strawberries, apples, broccoli, and string beans are largely pollinated by honey bees.

In the city of Chicago, the green roof campaign helps keep buildings warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and the green roofs of City Hall and the Chicago Cultural Center are great places to keep bees, which during the spring, summer, and fall are out pollinating the city’s vegetable gardens, fruit trees, and flowers. A well-kept beehive should produce a surplus of honey, known as “liquid gold”; the Cultural Center sells honey from its hives to benefit the Gallery 37 Art Center. But besides the obvious, what benefits do bees bring to the city?

Edie MacDonald, the head beekeeper at Garfield Park Conservatory, thinks the bee program there is a perfect example of how the City of Chicago can present unique learning opportunities for schoolchildren and the general public. As part of the series on urban gardening, a beehive is kept in Garfield’s Demonstration Garden, and every Tuesday and Saturday from 10 – 11 a.m. an apiarist is on hand to answer questions about bees and nature and to demonstrate beekeeping skills.

beehives2.JPGA well-publicized employment program for ex-felons in North Lawndale has everything to do with bees. Those involved in the Sweet Beginnings program help to manage and harvest the beehives and receive paychecks for their efforts, establishing an employment history. Chicago Honey Co-Op, who originally started the program, partners yearly with Growing Home Farm, giving experience to formerly homeless, low-income, or incarcerated Chicagoans in the program.

Cities could even be one of the better places to raise bees, since pesticide activity is less frequent here than in the country or suburbs. Bees also equal honey, and some think that honey from city bees is more flavorful because the bees can gather nectar from a greater variety of flowers, clustered within a shorter distance. Chuck Lorence, president of the Cook-DuPage Beekeepers' Association, sees other local perks, too. “I think Mayor Daley LOVES his bees, because when giving a gift to a visiting dignitary, what could be better than a locally produced product right from the city?”

Clubs like the Cook-DuPage Beekeepers’ Association allow beekeepers to network and socialize. A bee club is also an important source of tutelage and encouragement for anyone who is trying beekeeping for the first time, and Lorence says that interest is picking up again. “In the late '60’s and early '70’s, the hippie culture took up beekeeping with a flare. There was a dwindling interest until just recently, when we have the green movement and interest in buying local.”

Bee club members can range from commercial beekeepers like Chuck and his wife, Karen, who live in Aurora and run a business with 126 beehives, or individuals like James, a hobbyist who lives on the south side and keeps one hive in his backyard. Without much extra space and concerned with the possibility of vandalism, he is experimenting with light and ventilation in his garage, and will keep his beehive there.

A jar of honey will pleasantly surprise or appease any neighbors who might be nervous or upset about a beehive in the area, but mostly the bees speak for themselves. “The first summer I kept bees, a neighbor told me that his vegetable garden had more cucumbers and tomatoes than ever before,” says Ed, a resident of Lemont. “He loves the bees.”

Beehive Demonstrations at Garfield Park Conservatory Demonstration Garden, Tuesdays and Saturdays from 10 – 11 a.m., Free.

Saturday, July 26 is Bee Day at Garfield Park Conservatory, honey tasting, bee “petting”, and more.

Image of beehives by liz_noise