As honeybees drop dead in droves, city–dwellers-turned-beekeepers swarm to save them.
While enjoying the unadulterated honey extracted at the end of summer is yet another reward, some urban beekeepers are out to forge a more tangible connection to nature. “We had more interest in the bees themselves…and thought it would be an interesting hobby,” Newman explains. Kreilkamp agrees: “We’re both interested in the natural world. We’re birders, we like to hike and camp. We have a very small vegetable garden.” And “we do like honey,” she adds.
The spring thaw is when beekeepers discover whether their hives successfully “overwintered” or if they have a “dead-out.” Before the days of colony collapse disorder, 80 percent of honeybee hives typically survived; in 2010, only 64 percent survived nationwide, according to the USDA. In Iowa and Illinois, though, it was less than 30 percent (due, experts theorize, to last year’s extreme weather: drought, intense rains and long periods of below-freezing temperatures).
If a colony collapses, Chicagoans order new hives from bee farmers down South or on the West Coast and start from scratch. Bees sell out fast, and if you don’t act quickly, you’re S.O.L. until next year. The Chicago Honey Co-Op—a 60-hive nonprofit urban “bee farm” on an old Sears Roebuck property in North Lawndale—wants to remedy this reliance on “imported” bees by breeding its own honeybee queens in coming years. Until then, the Co-Op serves as a drop-off point for the out-of-state bees. Newman and Kreilkamp picked up their five-pound package of live, buzzing Texas honeybees here for about $100 last April after taking the Co-Op’s beekeeping class, and then made a beeline for the wooden crates on the Wicker Park roof.
But the process of installing 5,000 bees that cling inside the shipping box, as it turns out, is not for the tentative. “You’re supposed to kind of bang them, but we were trying to do it gently and they weren’t coming out.… So we came back the next day and had to whack them [into the hive],” Kreilkamp says. And thus their yearlong journey began.
Chicago has long been a bee-friendly town, well ahead of the global trend. Mayor Daley installed his hives atop City Hall in 2003, while New York City only lifted its bee ban one year ago. Although no ordinances prohibit beekeeping in Chicago, discourteous apiarists can be ticketed for public nuisance. Beekeepers have a duty to prevent swarming, which happens when a hive becomes sick or overcrowded and the honeybees leave en masse in search of another home. Suffice it to say, a ball of 80,000 bees clinging to a gutter tends to freak out the neighbors.