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The Beekeeper Next Door

   Today, in Chicago, you might have a beekeeper living next door, either with an actual hive in the backyard or on the roof, or a neighbor who volunteers around the city to maintain healthy hives in the wake of colony collapse disorder, a complex natural disaster that is causing a massive die-off of bees around the world.
    Former Mayor Richard M. Daley is a big fan of bees—hives have been thriving on the roofs of City Hall and the Cultural Center for years. In fact, there are an estimated 8,000 registered hives in Chicago and the number of Chicagoans wanting to get involved is growing every year. There are meetup groups, associations, and state and city agencies all involved in the beekeeping trend.
   Honeybees have been domesticated in artificial hives since prehistoric times. Beekeeping was developed in all cultures of the world except the Arctic: Even Aristotle wrote about the lives of bees and the craft of beekeeping. Out of a hundred major food crops, about seventy percent are pollinated by bees. We are all affected by the health of these tiny buzzing creatures.
   Michael Thompson is the Director of Chicago Honey Co-op, a two acre spread in the North Lawndale neighborhood started by Thompson, Tim Brown and Stephanie Arnett in 2004. He’s kind of the go-to guy in the area for all things bees, often interviewed about the subject. The co-op has trained people in the neighborhood, including some recently out of prison, how to become beekeepers. They sell their honey at the Green City farmers market in Lincoln Park and the Logan Square farmers market and supply Lula’s Restaurant in Logan Square and Nightwood in Pilsen.
    Thompson also teaches classes, and, like the beekeeping classes  he developed back in 2001 at the Garfield Park Conservatory, they sell out fast. With a class limit of 25, there are three classes in winter and two in May, and they are considering adding more due to the growing demand.
   For years the stereotypical beekeeper was an older, bearded man in the backyard portrayed as a little different and eccentric. These contemporary fledgling beekeepers are of different stock. Thompson says classes tend to be cross-generational with about a 60/40 ratio of women and men.
   Robin Cline, Public Programs Manager at the Garfield Park Conservatory, says a lot of people come who are concerned about the environment and sign up for classes to become a beekeeping volunteer—a volunteer position that’s hard to get. “We have 25 to 30 active beekeeper volunteers and there is a year’s waiting list,” she says.
   Surprisingly, bees can thrive more in urban—rather than rural— environments. “Beekeeping is very doable in Chicago. There are a lot of plants not available in rural areas, a lot of different types of blooming plants plus clover and dandelions in lots and alleyways,” says Cline.
   Other than environmental concerns and the amazing honey that is derived from bees, what is this fascination with insects that can potentially sting and harm you?
   When Thompson was 11 years old and growing up in southern Kansas, he read about beekeeping in an encyclopedia and convinced his parents to buy him his first beehive. That was over 50 years ago and he’s been at it ever since.
   “Beekeeping connects you to the earth. It’s a very calming experience. You need to focus in a way that is not like anything else. The incredible beauty of nature and danger go hand in hand. You have to move really slowly,” he says.
    He still gets stung about once a week. “It’s always painful, but goes away in a minute.” Wasp stings may be more painful. “Honeybees only eat honey and pollen. They evolved with flowering plants. Wasps eat animals, hot dogs, sugar, rotting flesh,” says Thompson.
   “It’s fascinating to see these efficient, socialized insects produce. There is a vast list of products that can be made from bees,” he says. He recommends reading Value Added Products by Beekeepers published by the UN that shows products from all over the world.
   Filmmaker Taggart Siegel talked to packed audiences at the Music Box Theatre in May after showings of his movie about beekeepers worldwide, “Queen of the Sun, What are the Bees Telling Us?”
   The documentary, playing to critical acclaim across the country, is gaining steam as environmental groups like the Sierra Club, Pesticide Action Network, slow food organizations and conservationists get behind it. The DVD should be available midsummer on the website queenofthesun.com.
   “The intrigue with the beekeeping movement has a lot of younger people becoming involved. Beekeeping is an international phenomenon with reaction to colony collapse disorder growing daily,” Siegel says.

Published: June 13, 2011
Issue: Summer 2011