#657: Bit-O-Honey

July 8th, 2016

“You will have little bits of bee in your honey, I’ll tell you that right now.”

On a rainy Thursday under a park district shelter, a group of about 12 people and one puppy gathered to talk bees.

It was a free park district outreach program with the Chicago Honey Co-op, which manages urban beehives throughout the city, selling raw honey at farmers markets.

Operations Manager Sydney Barton took the onlookers and puppy through the process of creating and managing your own urban hive.

Here’s some, but not nearly all, of what she said.


Move slow. Move smooth. A few long-sleeved white shirts from a thrift shop are better than a bulky, hot bee suit. Garden gloves are better than the professional gauntlets for sale. A veil is, however, mandatory. Bees can get in the eyes.

“They really don’t pay attention to you unless you make them notice you,” Barton said.

But that’s far from the only incorrect assumption about bees, she said.

The term “pure honey” on the side of a squeeze bear is meaningless. If it’s been blended or mixed with anything, you can’t even call it honey. “Organic” is probably imported, as the U.S. currently has no organic standard for honey. Also, it’s unlikely, unless you can make the bees promise only to go to organic-certified plants.

It’s not necessary to smoke the hive every time you approach. That depends on what the bees are doing and how much they have to defend. When you set up a new hive, no smoke needed.

“My teacher won’t stop laughing about that,” a little girl chimed in at the phrase “smoke the hive.”

The swarm

Despite the scary name of “swarm,” massive clusters of bees taking over trees, dead logs and the occasional downtown bicycle are refugees from overcrowded hives shopping around for a new place to build. They’re not invested enough in their new home to sting you to (their) death for it.

The hive itself, that stackable wooden box of removable frames, is stackable just so you can add new boxes and give the colony room to grow so you don’t end up with half your bees on DNAinfo.

For the urban beekeeper, the path to honey starts in January, when you order equipment and three pounds of bees and a queen from a breeder. You spend your winter and early spring assembling and painting your hive, waiting for the package to arrive.

The beautiful hive that you designed yourself to genuflect to the built environment while giving a covert nod to the works of Rem Koolhaas won’t get you where you want to go. Since the 1850s, the Langstroth beehive has been a big ol’ box of frames for one simple reason — to get inside a bee’s head and trick it into making more honey than the hive needs.

Around tax time, you get your bees in the mail. Introduce them to your hive (there’s a whole procedure for that, but I’m already pushing the boundary of interesting trivia vs. “Ugh, Paul’s into a thing again.”)

So you get them in the new home and they start bee-ing the place up,


After everyone’s nestled in, worker bees escort the slim-enough-to-fly virgin queen to a drone congregation area, a spot 10-40 meters (30-130 feet) in the air where the male drones have gathered. The drones mate with her en masse, breaking off their sperm organ into the queen and dying in the process.

“The queen, when she goes out for those mating flights, never has to go out again. She’s good for the rest of her life,” Barton said.

One flight comes to 1,500 to 2,000 eggs a day from April to November for the two to five years a queen bee lives.

The drone congregation areas are static, the exact same spot in the air used year after year. But every fall, the hive kicks out the useless males to die in the cold in order to stretch out the valuable winter larder for the workers and queen.

Every spring a new crop of drones finds the exact same plot of air their long-dead forebears did, and no one knows how.

Bee economics

Beekeeping has become crowded market. The supply has learned to squeeze that demand.

A full bee package (three pounds of bees and a queen) cost about $65 in 2004, when Chicago had maybe 50 to 100 backyard beekeepers, Barton said.

Now, with more than 900 Chicago hobbyists, hotels and restaurants in on the trend (City Hall has had hives since 2003), that same bee heap can run as high as $175, depending on source, type and genetics.

One highly sought genetic trait is hygiene, which in bees includes the ability to detect and remove bee pupae infested with verroa mites, a possible cause of colony collapse disorder, the unknown plague destroying honey bee populations around the world.

Thursday’s class, Barton said, was Beekeeping 101. Colony collapse is 102.

As the rain pittered on the park shelter roof, as the smoker puffed a collection of mulch and egg cartons into an empty demonstration hive, as people eyed the community garden’s dino kale and still-green tomatoes and as the puppy stayed adorable, we talked about a future without bees.

None of us wanted to know what that would be like.

Read about a very different kind of honey bee

More bees (sort of)

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