I’m sitting in one of Garfield Park Conservatory’s classrooms, not ready for what comes next. “It’s actually a little vicious,” lectures Julio Tuma, head beekeeper at Garfield Park Conservatory. “The queen mates with 15 to 20 drones and when she’s done, their phalluses fall off and they die.”
I don’t normally spend my weekends contemplating insect penises. But Tuma’s introductory beekeeping class, which runs for five hours on a Saturday morning, is bizarrely interesting and comprehensive—covering everything from sadistic bee-mating rituals to the intricacies of hive communication. Designed to provide preparation for DIY bee collections (and to recruit volunteers to help man the Conservatory’s 875,000 bees), the class draws a mix of hard-core gardeners, biology enthusiasts and home distillers looking to turn their honey into mead.
“I never thought I’d do this,” a fellow student tells me as we peruse the catalog of veils and smokers that comes in the class packet. A home distiller looking to create a blend of really pure honey to make beer with, he’s trying to get his beekeeping license. “Why not raise bees in the big city?”
Besides the obvious stinging and swarming problems, it’s a good question. The nationwide bee population has dropped so low, growers have resorted to creating hive caravans that make year-round cross-country pollinating trips. Sophisticated bee sanctuaries like Garfield Park may be the only thing that can save the bee and, ultimately, the plants it pollinates.
Thankfully, setting up urban hives like the ones at Garfield isn’t so hard. The tools of the trade include a hive— which newbies can order for $200 to $300—sun, water and space. Taking Tuma’s crash course in beekeeping doesn’t hurt either. For $60, students learn the basics of hive setup and maintenance, and they become eligible to volunteer for the Conservatory’s program—which gets them hands-on experience. They also sample honey from around the world.
“The impact that disease and environmental changes have had on bees in the past 20 years is just enormous,” says Tuma. “We’re doing what we can to change that.” And we’re buzzing with excitement over our new hobby.
The next Beginning Beekeeping class runs Saturday 6, 10am–3pm; $60, for Conservatory members $50 (300 N Central Park Ave; 773-638-1766, garfield-conservatory.org).