One can easily get caught up in the hustle and bustle of urban life, whether commuting by public transit to work, attending street and music festivals, or patronizing the variety of local bars and restaurants. Given the pace and distractions of city living, some effort may be required to slow down and reconnect with nature. Beekeeping has become one of my outlets for reconnection.
Honeybees have always fascinated me. I am particularly intrigued by the fact that they are the only insects that produce food (honey). Being an avid gardener, keeping bees is simply a natural extension of my hobby. I never thought it would be possible, however, to keep bees in an urban environment like Chicago until I came across an article online about an urban rooftop beekeeper in New York City. From there I did some research and found there were many beekeepers on rooftops and in community gardens in urban cities all over the world. After attending an Intro to Beekeeping class through a local beekeeping organization I ordered my first package of bees and officially became a beekeeper.
Each year as spring approaches, I am anxious and excited to see if my hives survived another harsh Chicago winter. This year two of my four hives made it through to spring. I am grateful for these survivors, especially since beekeepers across the country have experienced tremendous losses in recent years.
Many issues plague honeybees, but there are ways to adapt our practices to aid their survival. As a hobbyist beekeeper, my intent is to care for the bees and create the best conditions for them to thrive while admiring them and occasionally stealing some honey. Commercial beekeepers on the other hand have business goals in mind. Harvesting honey is often a by-product of their bigger money making endeavor—pollination. As commercial beekeepers truck hundreds, sometimes thousands, of hives around the country to pollinate different blooms, the bees often become stressed by constantly changing environments and spending days on the road trapped inside the hives, sometimes in extreme cold or heat. They also become more exposed to diseases and parasites as compared to a stationary hive. Oftentimes they rely on nutrients of a single crop for a month or more. This would be comparable to if you ate only blueberries for a whole month. All these factors lead to the death of bee colonies. Having so many hives, commercial beekeepers are not able to carefully inspect each hive to identify different ailments. To account for this, they treat their hives with medicines and chemicals, whether or not a hive needs it. As bad as this may seem, the reality is that without commercial beekeepers, the produce industry could not keep up with demand. For example, there would not be enough bees local to California to pollinate all the almond orchards. This raises further questions about whether or not we should have such vast orchards of a single blooming crop in the first place.
My bees have the advantage of being stationary. They source most of their nectar and pollen from tree-lined streets, wildflowers, and diverse gardens. I often use a hands-off approach when managing my hives. I won’t treat for diseases or pests by using chemicals. I believe the bees will ultimately be stronger if they are able to survive without drugs or other potentially harmful chemicals, and I surely do not want the chemicals showing up in my honey. I do, however, use rudimentary prevention methods such as removing excess drone cells, which carry a higher count of varroa mites (one of the many pests the honeybees face).
I continue to try different techniques and methods based on what I hear from other beekeepers. In Chicago, the beekeeping community is quite strong. There are actually two different beekeeping meet-up groups. It’s hard to say how many managed hives there are in Chicago, but my guess is that there are a couple hundred in the city alone. People say if you ask ten beekeepers the same question about bees, you will get ten different answers. There is no single way to keep and take care of bees. Oftentimes the bees know better than I do. When there are certain issues with my hives, such as swarming or queenless situations, my interference may only do harm. As I say, “when in doubt, let the bees figure it out."
After three years of beekeeping, I decided to extend my relationship with bees beyond my own hives. People can now contact me to remove honeybees that decide to make a new home on their property. Most often when I am called for bee removal, the location of the bee colony is in a cavity on the side or inside of a building. The bees can’t be blamed for finding exactly what they are looking for—a hollow, dry, elevated space to start their new home. In less urbanized landscapes, bee colonies often utilize a cavity in a dead or damaged tree. The bees often don’t have this choice in cities.
Beekeepers like myself methodically collect unwanted honeybees and their honeycomb and relocate them to a safe, comfortable, managed hive. It’s not always an easy job, nor always successful, but it’s a better alternative than exterminating our precious pollinators (a practice that is illegal in many states). Honeybees are known to be quite efficient pollinators. They are not the only insects that pollinate, but the success of a great deal of our fruits and vegetables can be directly linked to the presence of honeybees. In China, the decline of honeybees has forced farmers to pollinate their crops by hand with a paintbrush. While we are far from this situation in the United States, it could become a reality unless we make it a priority to ensure the survival of honeybees.
For me, beekeeping has further opened my eyes to the reality that humans cannot live independently of other animals, even ones that may seem insignificant at first. Pollinators like honeybees may be a window through which we can apprehend ways to better coexist with nature, as well as appreciate the partnerships we share with other animals in tending our food system. They are also another one of nature’s wonderful creatures, and there is a lot we can learn from how they work collectively and democratically as a single superorganism.
When I don my beekeeping suit, light up the smoker, and walk out to greet the hives, I find my appreciation, awareness, and understanding of the world around me increases. The buzz in the air continues to stir my curiosity and makes me feel alive. We must remember that although we are able to build massive skyscrapers, tunnel intricate underground transportation systems, and digitally connect with people halfway around the world at the touch of a button, we are ultimately still in the hands of Mother Nature.
All photographs by Kyle Gati. You can keep up with Kyle's work by visiting his blog, The Hive Life.