In the North Lawndale neighborhood on Chicago's west side there is a faint buzz in the air. If you listen carefully you'll notice the noise isn't coming from the construction sites that have sprung up as a result of redevelopment, the noise you hear is coming from honey bees. In the winter of 2004, three urban bee keepers came up with the idea of creating the Chicago Honey Co-op and turning their passion into a business that would also benefit the community it resided in.
The impetus behind their decision was to provide jobs for people who were under-employed while operating a small business model dedicated to sustainable agriculture practices. Today the Chicago bee farm contains over 100 chemical free beehives and the Co-op produces (besides honey) candles, moisturizing body bars and lip-balms that can be purchased at Chicago area stores, farmers markets and on-line.
Recently the farm's manager agreed to answer a couple of questions for me via e-mail after I saw the Chicago Honey Co-op profiled on a local television program. I asked about the possibility that bees from their farm would find my little urban garden since I'm not too far from the apiary.
A: "Yes. Honeybees will generally fly 3-5 mile (though have been clocked up to 8 miles) radius from their hives. They prefer under 2 miles since they are all about efficiency."
On a local gardening forum a homeowner asked if anyone knew of people who would relocate a bee hive from her home without using chemicals or harming the hive. I asked if that was a service they extended to residents in the city.
A: "We will collect honeybee swarms, a natural migration/division in May and June while they hang in clusters from trees. They do this for 1-3 days while deciding what cavity they will finally move to. Many people call us in mid to late summer about 'bees' around their homes. These are usually wasps which make a similar looking brood nest with hexagonal cells but made of paper. We don't remove these as the occupants will disappear when it gets cold outside. We are capable of removing honeybees from a house, tree or other structure but must look at each location for access issues among other details."
Earlier this summer, without a shark attack in sight, the media focused their attention on bees and Colony Collapse Disorder. I wondered if the problem had reached the bee farm.
A: "No, we are not claiming this one (CCD) but have many problems at the bee farm, mostly parasitic mites which have devastated our hives every other year."
Seeing as how the North Lawndale neighborhood had been allowed to fall into a state of disrepair I wondered if the Chicago Honey Co-op had chosen their location because of the plethora of empty lots or because they saw a need for jobs in the area.
A: "Both of the reasons you suggest were very important to the three city beekeepers who founded this farm. In addition, I had spent nearly two years working nearby as Community Gardener and Horticulturist at Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance previously to building Chicago Honey Co-op. We started teaching beekeeping at Garfield in 2001 and still do a class in January. (Contact Harmony at 773-638-1766 x24 for details)"
Growing up in a neighborhood near the bee farm I faced many of the same problems that plague the residents of the North Lawndale neighborhood. I know that summers can be particularly rough times because there aren't many activities for kids and the green spaces are often under the control of the worst kinds of people in the community. Growing up an alien concept like a bee farm in my neighborhood would have arose more than curiosity among kids with nothing better to do than bother bees. But Michael S. Thompson, the farm's manager, informs me that they've only had two instances of what could be considered vandalism. This is probably attributed to the fact that the group participates in educational programs locally and is more than just another business that only takes money out of the community. The success of the Chicago Honey Co-op stand as an example of what can happen when a business has the interest of the community in mind and is not just focused on profit making.
You can visit the Chicago Honey Co-op website to get recipes, find Chicago area businesses that carry CHC products and learn more about them. If you don't live in Chicago you can see the CHC on this Google Map link. It is the flat white area just above and to the left of the marker when you're looking at the satellite picture. If you're interested in buying honey or other products but don't live in Chicago you can visit the Chicago Honey Co-op store on Etsy and browse the selection of artisan products.