Chicago: A Great Place to Bee

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to be in Chicago, Illinois in the summer, you probably enjoyed the scenery of sailboats and skyscrapers and beautifully blue Lake Michigan. Hopefully, you also enjoyed all the dynamic, vibrant flowers Chicago uses to decorate the streets and parks. Everything freezes in ‘The Windy City’ in the winter, but Chicagoan’s don’t let that deny them from enjoying and encouraging everything that blooms.

That means, in addition to well-heeled shoppers along Chicago’s ‘Miracle Mile,’ there must also be plenty of pollinators.

This was confirmed via a conversation with Naaman Gambill, lead beekeeper for the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance in Chicago. Gambill offers that Chicago is uniquely supportive of honeybees. He salutes the people and city of Chicago, noting that they realized early on it was both respectable and essential to have bees. Their being mindful to their many benefits was behind Chicago legalizing beekeeping much earlier than other cities, a real testament to the people and city of Chicago. Notes Gambill, “while beekeeping everywhere is enjoying a surge in popularity, urban beekeeping is a very cool thing in the city of Chicago.”

Gambill is in charge of hundreds of thousands of (winged) workers in the 1-2 dozen hives under his watch. He’s assisted by volunteers through programs developed to help people understand beekeeping “trials, tribulations and trouble-shooting.” The programming’s goals include educating and nurturing relationship with bees.

“City folk want an opportunity to interact with nature,” explained Gambill, sharing there are other popular programs such as composting, horticulture and propagation. But, there’s a special fascination with honeybees, as I suspect all readers of this newsletter understand!

Armed with fundamental knowledge allows students from the Introduction to Beekeeping class to more intelligently decide if they want to be beekeepers, or perhaps just be involved in the programming through the Garfield Parks Parks Conservatory, Parks Districts Through this programming volunteers are exposed to all dimensions of beekeeping, from building equipment to actual hive checks and honey extraction and bottling. A popular volunteer activity is cleaning equipment during what can sometimes be a long, cold, Midwest winter. “Propolis-scraping nearly cures cabin fever,” claims Gambill.

[caption id="attachment_154" align="alignright" width="250" caption="Honeybees meet humans during a ‘Meet the Bees’ event."]
Honeybees meet humans during a ‘Meet the Bees’ event.[/caption]

A beekeeping volunteer becomes an actual “apprentice” when they’ve demonstrated they have the appropriate hive management knowledge, and can take responsibility for optimizing the colony. Depending upon the year, apprentices “earn” a third or half of the hive’s surplus honey. The remainder of the honey is sold to help support programming.

There’s a variety of beekeeping programming, including:

A ‘Meet the Bees’ session (typically in July) where volunteers come to Conservatory for hive demonstrations, honey tasting, working some hives (weather permitting), bee arts and crafts, and yes, even humans doing bee dances.

Working with a local elementary school that had built an entire curriculum around bees. The students sponsored a hive (buying all the materials), which they painted beautifully, and visited on field trips where they could apply everything they’d learned. “Students were excited to teach their parents about bees,” shared Gambill, “although the parents stand much further back from the hives than the kids.”

Using observation hives for “Bees at Work” demonstrations twice weekly at the Conservatory throughout season.

Gambill’s enthusiasm for beekeeping is unmistakable, and makes him chuckle. “All the things I was forced to do as chores as a kid I now do as I job I love,” he admits. Part of what he loves about beekeeping is the constant learning, noting they are all yearning to learn more about bees so they can better help them, and that they are constantly tinkering to find out what works best. Due to mites, they’ve gone to all screened bottom boards, even in those tough Midwest winters. They continue to experiment with various types of feeders and feeding, but rely on fundamental beekeeping knowledge. Notes Gambill, “one of the references used frequently is Walter T. Kelley’s How to Keep Bees and Sell Honey.”

Gambill, on behalf of Chicago, invites us to all stop by and visit the busy bees of this progressive city. When asked if he had any special advice for successful beekeeping, he noted that it is essential to research and “start with a good location.”

Chicago, it seems, is such a place.

  • email