As honeybees drop dead in droves, city–dwellers-turned-beekeepers swarm to save them.
It’s one of the first few warm days in early March, and Humboldt Park couple Scott Newman and Emmy Kreilkamp are climbing up to the roof of a friend’s Wicker Park apartment building to check on their year-old honeybees. The scene is unsettling. Hundreds of black fuzzy carcasses lie strewn at the entrance to the hive. Some blow across the silver tar-paper roof while Newman and Kreilkamp watch the hive for signs of activity.
Newman, a film propmaster, and Kreilkamp, an instructor at DePaul, are members of a growing army of urban beekeepers in Chicago and cities across the world. Wearing bee burkas known as veil suits and opera-length protective gloves, amateur apiarists skulk in fenced-in backyards and between A/C units on rooftops, puffing smoke into their honeycomb hideouts. Last year there were 800 registered hives in Cook County, a 40 percent increase from 2006.
Why the sudden uptick in what’s certainly one of the world’s oldest professions? Almost everyone you ask—from Cook-DuPage Beekeepers Association president Gary Gates to apiarist emeritus Michael Thompson (keeper of the City Hall and Millennium Park bees)—chalks it up to increased awareness of colony collapse disorder. In 2007, news broke that up to 70 percent of the honeybees in the United States had disappeared. Due to pesticides? Cell-phone towers? No one knows for sure. But it caught people’s attention.
“There’s an awareness now that bees are having a difficult time surviving,” says Steve Chard, apiary inspection supervisor with the Illinois Department of Agriculture. “The public is realizing the importance of honeybees to everyday life.” Specifically, honeybees pollinate a third of the food humans consume, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture—from fruits and vegetables to the alfalfa cattle graze on.
“I kept seeing articles and hearing snippets here and there about bees being in trouble, and it made me want to help them more,” says Aza Quinn-Brauner, a 28-year-old art installer at the Art Institute who started his first hive two summers ago without any official training. “I didn’t know if beekeeping was helping or not, but I figured the more bees in the city, it has to be better for them if their numbers are dwindling.”