There are several things that South Side beekeepers tend to agree on: urban beekeeping is far better than its rural counterpart, interest in beekeeping is growing every year, and bees are a hobby that is very easy to get hooked on. No matter how they each got started in the world of bees, every one of them was sucked in and soon found a niche within the surprisingly large beekeeping community on the South Side.
Greg Lane, a Hyde Park–based beekeeper, was a furniture maker before a request from a customer for a beehive unexpectedly sent him headfirst into the world of bees. He began to do research on honeybees in order to build a hive well suited for them, and found that a lot of conflicting information about bees was being spread around, which pushed him to figure them out for himself. “They’re very compelling creatures. I’ve been really fascinated with them ever since,” Lane says.
These days, he keeps hives in his backyard and runs the Chicago Honeybee Rescue, removing honeybee colonies that establish themselves in places they can’t stay and relocating them into hives where they can be kept safe and healthy. As far as he knows, he’s the only one doing this work on the South Side. “The South Side could definitely benefit from a more organized community of beekeeping,” he says.
But while the community may be disorganized, he also acknowledges that he’s been receiving more and more calls from South Side residents seeking information and resources about beekeeping. Interest is growing, and he couldn’t be more thrilled.
Jill Murtagh and Edie McDonald are the founders of the Historic Pullman Beekeepers and seasoned apiarists—Murtagh has been beekeeping under McDonald’s mentorship for over a decade and McDonald has been a beekeeper on the South Side for over thirty years. Every January, the two of them teach a six-week class on beekeeping at the Pullman Community Apiary. Once someone completes the class, they become a member of the apiary and can keep their bees within it if keeping them at home isn’t possible. Murtagh says that their classes have become extremely popular, mirroring the success of beekeeping classes around the city from organizations like the Chicago Honey Co-op and the Garfield Park Conservatory.
With community and rooftop gardens, aquaponic farms, and backyard chicken coops springing up around the city, the recent popularity of beekeeping can be partly attributed to the trendiness of urban agriculture as a whole. Murtagh, however, also credits the success of beekeeping to how easy it is to start and get into. “With a minimum investment and in a limited space, people can start right away after taking a class,” she says.
“When I learned that beekeeping is a profession or hobby that is passed on through storytelling, it deeply resonated with me because most everyone is interested in storytelling. It doesn’t require more than people having an interest,” says Brenda Palms Barber, the founder and CEO of Sweet Beginnings. This project, a subsidiary of the North Lawndale Employment Network, uses beekeeping as a method to help ex-offenders reintegrate into society and the job market, and is an enterprise that sticks out among the backyard beekeepers and community organizations that make up a majority of the South Side beekeeping scene.
Palms Barber says that Sweet Beginnings landed on honey “almost by accident,” while searching for a business idea that would teach the ex-offenders marketable skills and generate revenue for the non-profit. The idea of teaching beekeeping and selling the honey was suggested to her; she liked the uniqueness of the endeavor and that it was a type of work that “would enable people from all kinds of academic backgrounds to still be successful.”
Sweet Beginnings has been a huge success, training 385 ex-offenders since its inception, of which only four percent have returned to prison—a remarkable feat when compared to the national recidivism rate of sixty-five percent. Palms Barber is also proud of the response that people have had to the honey the beekeepers produce. “It really did change the way that people thought about local honey,” she says, “It really doesn’t have to come from a rural area—urban honey is cleaner than rural honey.”
Every one of these beekeepers is quick to point out the benefits of urban beekeeping over its suburban and rural counterparts. The prevalence of Colony Collapse Disorder—the much-discussed phenomenon of widespread honeybee disappearance—is much lower in urban areas, making urban beekeeping all the more important.
“Chicago is the best place in the state of Illinois for honeybees,” Lane says matter-of-factly, “Illinois is a state full of industrialized agriculture, which is terrible for bees.” Low levels of herbicides and pesticides, and the biodiversity of an urban environment—important for the production of better tasting honey—make cities excellent places for beekeeping.
Murtagh agrees with this analysis, and believes that the South Side in particular is perfectly suited to beekeeping. The disused industrial sites around the Far South Side are perfect for keeping hives, shown by the fact that the Pullman Community Apiary stands on the site of the former Pullman Factory. She also says the South Side’s “wonderful natural plants and prairie areas are very well-suited for bee forage and honey production.”
With the urban beekeeper community expanding and awareness of the importance of honeybees spreading, beekeepers are hopeful that interest in the hobby will continue to grow. When asked about her views on the future of beekeeping, Murtagh gave an optimistic response: “I think that people will decide that keeping bees is just an interesting and profitable a hobby as keeping a dog or learning to crochet.” Here’s to a future of less barking and more buzzing.