Urban Honey

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chicago, illinois— When visiting Chicago Honey Co-op (chicagohoneycoop.com) on the West Side of Chicago, people often ask us, “Why honeybees?” and I usually answer, “Because we can.” The ancient craft of beekeeping is practiced in all cultures of the world except in the Arctic. We chose to raise this particular animal in an older American city because of the abundant nectar forage left over from farming here in the last two centuries and the addition of millions of city-planted shade trees. Locating the bee farm close to where we live and sell the products helps enormously in the reduced amount of travel time and heavy hauling needed for honey production. Also, under-used industrial parks abound in this postindustrial city, providing excellent opportunities for food production.

In the winter of 2003, three Chicago beekeepers joined forces to create a bee farm on the former Sears-Roebuck property right in the heart of our city. We abut an old railroad embankment wall with both prairie remnant and concrete in equal amounts. We gladly located the hives on an old truck parking lot, renting the land from kind real estate developers who will sell or build here someday. We started with forty beehives the first year and have grown to one hundred hives at this time. Everything we do here is temporary and portable because we expect to have to move eventually. Like most beekeepers, we are always looking for new sites on which to place the hives. Adjacent to the concrete, we built a community farm where neighbors and friends can grow food and flowers for their families. We have been fortunate to receive donations of farm compost, some of which we place in large windrows right on top of the concrete, where we grow sweet potatoes and winter squash among other heat-loving crops.

Though not generally a grant-giving institution, the Illinois Department of Corrections gave us a one-time grant to start the honey business; our practice is to provide job training for difficult-to-employ people returning to their neighborhoods from prison. We don’t require a felony conviction for employment and also don’t discriminate against those with a criminal record. Beeswax candles and body products are produced from the hives in addition to basswood tree honey and white sweet clover honey. We also teach beekeeping to the public several times a year and have had many volunteers who have learned how to care for honeybees and grow vegetables at our two-acre farm.

At the request of Chicago’s mayor Richard Daley, we have even installed and maintain for the city eight beehives on three public buildings downtown. We harvest the honey from the hives and give it back to the city to sell in three of their stores, the proceeds of which support various cultural activities run by the city. We find growing food in Chicago the most natural thing to do as the climate in the Upper Midwest is perfect for it, and there are many appreciative people interested in our work. Slow Food Chicago and Terra Madre in Turin, Italy, have supported and recognized our farm, especially the delicious honey we produce, as an important piece of the worldwide movement for healthy, local food production. But the social aspect of our work is not lost on those who have come to visit — nor is the value of what one can leave behind in the world.