Rooftop Beekeeping in Chicago: The Confluence of Culture and Nature

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I was fortunate enough to be allowed to sit in on this lecture with Michael Thompson, of the Chicago Honey Co-Op, and Dr. Alan Molumby, of UIC. The lecture was presented by The School of the Chicago Botanic Garden & the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs at the Chicago Cultural Center. Part of it was suppose to take place at the Lurie Garden, due to bad weather the lecture was kept indoors but was even more interesting than I was expecting. My only complaint is that it was a one time thing and not part of a series. I took some notes that I'll share below the fold. 

Honey bees can't hear, aren't affected by noises like music because it is the wrong frequency.
Bees have been farmed since ancient Egyptian times, possibly before then.
Queens lay two thousand eggs a day, a hive can increase by one thousand or two thousand bees a day. A hive of three thousand bees in May could have fifty thousand bees in July.
Bees need a lot of water, Chicago Honey Co-Op provides containers tanks with wine corks floating on top to give bees access to water. Beekeeping is very hard work under hot conditions and a hive can weigh as much as three to five hundred pounds. 
The nectar of ubran flora in Chicago produces good honey because of the diversity of plants found. Farm remnants, escaped seeds that have naturalized & the amount of clover that grows in our area helps the production of honey.
Yellow jacket wasps attack hives because they smell honey and aging bees make easy prey. Yellow jackets eat aphids and other pests in vegetable garden.
Honey bees are very efficient. They will visit the closest & most numerous flowering plants within a 2-5 mile radius of the hive.
The amount of "free labor" that humans receive from bees is estimated to be in the trillions of dollars.
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Urban beekeeping enthusiasts examine specimens 
A honey bee is a wasp that abandoned the predator lifestyle around the age of the dinosaurs. It was easier for them to become foragers than to be killers.
Most bees are solitary and never meet their offspring, they die before broodcells emerge.
A lot of bees are parasites of other bees.
A typical urban area has a higher density of blooms than a rural area of similar size. Bee use urban areas like rest stops to spread, only a few bees have been able to take advantage of this.  
Bees in urban areas can make a home in discarded things like boxes, refrigerators and coolers.
Honey bees fly when cooler, bumble bees are hairy because they have evolved to forage in cold temperatures. The hairs on bees are thermal regulators. Sweat bees are named so because they will collect the sweat off of your body.
Sandy soil is good for solitary bees because many of them will build homes in it. Large undisturbed piles of sand make perfect homes for them.
Honey bees were brought to America by the settlers of Jamestown and some escaped, nobody knows if they wiped out any native bees. The Native American's called honey bees "the white man's fly."
Bumble bees are also in decline but nobody knows why. They are always present in bad industrial areas. Leave a pot upside down with the drainage hole covered and way for the bumble bee to find an entrance and they will take up residence. They are the only bee that pollinate tomatoes. 
To attract more native bees plant native plants, add sand piles, rotting woods, trees to increase the diversity of native bees in your garden.
Plants recommended for butterfly gardens aren't good choices for bees. For native bees plant things like: Golden Alexander, Praire Rose, Horsemint, Blazing Star, Beards Tongue.
While a lot of money is spent by agriculture industry to transport honey bees to pollinate crops most of the pollination is actually done by native bees. 
The plants you find in Big Box garden centers aren't ideal for bees. They have been bred to produce large flowers losing the genetic diversity that makes them good candidates to collect pollen from.
Dr. Molumby recalled an anecdote of not believing that bees will be attracted to corn pollen and looking at his plants one day and watching bees "bathing" in the pollen of his corn. Pollen from GMO plants will kill bees. 
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Dr. Molumby talks with Cubs fans/bee lover. 

The lecture was particularly interesting because both of the speakers had different styles. When I first entered the room I thought Dr. Molumby was the AV guy, imagine my surprise when I discovered the guy with tattoos and studed belt was a, self-described, "bee nerd" who has spent years studying bees. The people in attendance were also diverse; from young students to older couples, united by an interest in bees. Like I said above, this lecture should really be part of a series because there was so much more that could have been covered. Special thanks to Bonnie Tawse, Coordinator of Environmental Programs at Millennium Park, Lurie Garden , Michael Thompson and Dr. Alan Molumby for the hospitality. 


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  • Really, really interesting facts. I was surprised by "A typical urban area has a higher density of blooms than a rural area of similar size," but after I thought about it, that makes sense.

    There are a lot of bees and wasps visiting the garden here. It's kind of funny how I never get stung in my own yard, but I've gotten stung by wasps (usually yellow jackets,) gardening in other people's yards lots of times. I guess I'll have to cut them some slack since they eat aphids.

    That's scary about pollen from GMO corn killing bees. That's the best argument I've heard against GMO crops. No bees, no food. No food, no us. Simple.

    Great info - thanks for passing it along!

  • In reply to ssgardengirl:

    Hi SSGardenGirl,

    There was more at the lecture but I couldn't write fast enough. What an honor to meet two people who are so passionate about a subject.

    I haven't been stung in years and it was by a honey bee. Although we get more yellow jackets here than bees it seems.

    The GMO pollen really surprised me and I'm grateful for the student that asked the question because I didn't know that about GMO pollen.

  • In reply to ssgardengirl:

    Mr BrownThumb -

    You said "Bees need a lot of water, Chicago Honey Co-Op provides containers tanks with wine corks floating on top to give bees access to water. Beekeeping is very hard work under hot conditions and a hive can weigh as much as three to five hundred pounds."

    Michael talked to us about that last year at TomatoFest, and I took a couple of pictures. It was amazing to watch the bees drink just before the sun started to set, and then, almost with the flip of a switch, make their way back to their hives. Michael and the team had a few of us stand between the water and the hives, which was like standing in the middle of a bee highway. They line of bees zoomed around our heads, not the least bit interested in us. Thanks for a reminder of a cool experience.

    The picture on the front page of our website at the moment is from the corks that you mentioned. I took it at the honey coop in the waning light after most had already returned home to the hive.

    Thanks again for coming out on Friday.


  • In reply to CandidWines:


    At the lecture Michael mentioned that they needed about 500 corks for this year and I thought of CandidWines. I'm not much of a win drinker, so if you have any around give them to Michael. Thanks for sharing your memory of the bees returning to the hive. I hope to get a chance to experience it at Chicago Tomato Fest.

  • In reply to ssgardengirl:

    Wonderful post Mr. Brown Thumb! I used to be a bee keeper, I still have an old bee smoker that belonged to my grandfather! Wonderful little workers they are indeed! Thanks for sharing and have a wonderful day! xo~

  • Were you really? What a small world, or city, we live in. You should post pics of your bumblebee nest.

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