In the Back of the Yards neighborhood near 51st Street and Racine Avenue, you’ll find something a bit unexpected: thousands of honeybees buzzing away producing honey for the Chicago Honey Co-op, a non-profit organization in Chicago that harvests honey in some unique locations.
The co-op has 50 hives located in various places throughout the city. From rooftops and once-vacant lands to an urban farm at Patchwork Farms, the co-op also helps out with the hives located at the Museum of Science and Industry. With about 80,000 bees per hive, the beekeepers at Chicago Honey Co-op have their work cut out for them.
Jefferson Shuck started beekeeping three years ago. He said that urban beekeeping like what the co-op is doing in Chicago is actually more suitable for honeybees.
“Bees do really well in the Midwest, especially in a city environment,” Shuck said. “In a city, you don’t have agricultural strains like pesticides that can disrupt pollination.”
According to Sydney Barton, the operations manager at the Chicago Honey Co-op, there is a diverse diet for the honeybees in a city environment like Chicago.
“The reason cities are so good for pollen is because of the huge variety of sources in the city,” she said.
When the co-op began back in 2004, Barton said that the now thriving urban agricultural movement in Chicago barely existed, only having just small community or backyard gardens. There was a lack of urban farm space, so the co-op had to get creative with their hive locations.
Now, organizations reach out to the co-op to have their own hives. The Chicago Cultural Center has a hive on their rooftop and Lurie Garden in Millennium Park plays host to city-dwelling bees.
With all the talk from the scientific world of honeybees’ future being in danger, the Chicago Honey Co-op’s work is getting more and more important. The beekeepers travel to area schools and community groups to talk about the importance of honeybees through their Training Center program, which aims to spread knowledge about honeybees, what native pollinators are and the environment around us.
“A lot of people now understand that they are not aggressive animals…if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you,” Shuck said. “We have seen a huge increase in people who want to take classes with us and buy our honey to support what we are doing.”
Part of the co-op’s mission is to educate people on the beekeeping process. They hold hands-on workshops in the summer and offer lecture-based classes in the winter for those interested in learning more.
According to Shuck, the “honeybee season” is from late March until late October. The beekeepers are in charge of buying the bees from “bee breeders” and installing the hives, which includes supplying the bees with boxes of foundation so they can build on their hives.
The bees get busy in June and July, which Shuck said is when a lot of the pollination happens.
“There are millions of Linden trees planted here which creates a lot of nectar,” he said. “White clover is also a popular for its pollen.”
Once there is enough honey to harvest, the beekeepers carefully get the bees off of the honeycomb to extract the raw honey. The honey then goes to their warehouse, where they prick the wax capping off the comb, spin it in an extractor and jar the honey to sell.
From hive to honey, the co-op helps keep the honeybee population alive and well, which Shuck said is a benefit for all of us, including the city’s changing landscape.
“What we find fascinating is that in Back of the Yards, where there were once old stock yards before, is now home to these honeybees,” he said.