Apples and Honey: The Bee Gardener
Editor’s Note: It’s that time of year when we roll out Brad Moldofsky’s features on local apples and honey, the symbolic foods of the Jewish new year. With Rosh Hashanah approaching, we thought you’d enjoy re-reading again. For the apple side of the story, visit “A Tale of Two Orchards”. Brad posted a brief update on the bees here.
Anthony McKinney exudes calm. In his demeanor, his speech pattern and, apparently, his pheromones, or whatever chemical we give off that bees can sense. Because despite the fact that he dismantled two hives filled with thousands of frisky Italian bees and even poked a finger at a busy queen, her stinging servants were unruffled.
And yet, Anthony warned me, if he were to dress in brown, the social insects might mistake him for a bear and get medieval all over his tender, furless skin—honey bee style.
Bees are Anthony’s livestock; he is a bee farmer, or bee gardener, as he calls himself. He’s not selling or giving honey away yet. His two hives (named after their benefactors, Meghann and Peter) have many bee babies growing and lots of wax (or comb), but currently lack a surplus of honey. In theory, though, a good year could net a dozen gallons of the sweet stuff, plus wax, royal jelly and propolis, which he can sell as a health supplement.
But not this year. The apiary was just set up Memorial Day atop a factory roof within sight of the ballpark where the White Sox play. The 10,000+ bees (whom Anthony has not yet named or counted accurately) must produce enough honey to get themselves through their first Chicago winter before their human caretaker will consider skimming off the sweet stuff. Many professional bee farmers take virtually all the honey, says Anthony, and their bees subsist on sugar water all winter. But as anyone with hyperactive children can tell you, sugar water is a poor substitute for real food. And pollen, which gives bees protein, is available only when flowers bloom. Imagine living in Chicago November through March on nothing but soft drinks. So for now, all the honey stays in the nearly 100 frames that make up Anthony’s South Side apiary.
Not that he hasn’t stolen a taste or two. To eat honey from a Meghann or Peter, remove the lid from each hive to access one of five stacked boxes. The frames are packed in like books on a shelf that’s facing up, except they’re really really sticky. Pry a frame away from its neighbor with a specialized scraper/crowbar, slide the frame up and out of the box, rip off the layer of comb the bees make to protect their booty and chow down. Oh, and don’t get stung.
Not getting stung was easy—especially since we weren’t stealing honey. Although Anthony’s smoking device was ready to lull the insects into calmness, he hardly needed it. And since I wouldn’t be eating, I didn’t have to consider unzipping the protective veil from my baggy, waist-length jacket or tight-fitting gloves so as to put food in my mouth. The off-white, burqa-like bee jacket was comfortable to wear on a hot summer day with a light breeze. It kept the bees off my skin, gave me anonymity in photos and was both modest and tasteful. I call the outfit a bee-rqa.
Skittish as I am around stinging insects, I was largely OK with them and they weren’t bothered by me. In fact, Anthony gently removed the frame where Her Majesty was laying eggs into cells. But neither she nor her buzzing minions seemed frazzled as Anthony rotated the frame and pointed a gloved finger an inch from the expectant Queen Mum while I filmed. Were I a bear, I could have just stuck my snout against the exposed frame and chewed off a bit o’ honey. But Anthony has developed a rapport with his bees, whom he thinks recognize his scent, and trust him not to bring bears up to the roof to visit. We were cool.
Walking Through A Bee Graveyard
Meghann and Peter (remember, these are the hives I’m talking about) comprise the modest South Side apiary nestled on the west side of a partially shaded industrial rooftop. A ladder is the only means to reach the hives. (“If you become anxious and want to run from the bees,” safety-conscious Anthony coached me, “don’t run off the rooftop.”) The neighbors don’t know the bees are there, and the workers on the ground floor are seldom bothered. Only when sick and dying bees are tossed down by their fastidious sisters off the roof into a “bee graveyard” do the humans need to sweep up a bit. We found one bee drowned in the tray of water Anthony maintains for them to drink. And Anthony admits that he sometimes crushes his livestock as he disassembles and rebuilds their homes during his frequent inspections. “To farm bees means to sometimes kill bees,” he told me, and I nodded as if I’d been there and done that.
My favorite anecdote, though, is that if a male bee (only purpose in life: fertilize a queen) survives the hazardous mating with the queen (Check the Internet yourself to learn why they’re likely to die in flagrante; it’s nasty) but refuses to leave the hive once his job is done, his sisters may chew off his wings and unceremoniously dump him off the edge of the hive. An apiary is no place for freeloaders.
Which makes the notion of bee drift so odd. Says Anthony, when given a choice between returning to her hive to drop off nectar and pollen, or making the deposit at a hive a closer by, some bees will choose the shorter trip. Over time, the center hives in a row may be vacated as workers desert it and join hives on the ends. So my naïve notions about dedicated, tireless insects working ever for the good of their queen and hive were shattered when I learned that even bees may betray their family. Or maybe some just don’t feel like flying those extra few yards.
Still, they make honey for us, so who am I to criticize? And while most of us don’t care where the bees choose to live, it makes a big difference in how the product tastes and looks.
The big honey sellers (think amber liquid in a bear-shaped container) buy honey from all over the world and blend it into a consistent-looking and -tasting food that we’ve all grown up with. But fresh, local honey might appear and taste like, oh, blueberries in Michigan, or the extra dark buckwheat honey in New York or the pale mesquite-tinged liquid from Texas. It might be pale or yellow or brown and change color through the seasons as new flowers bloom and the product ages. Anthony has tasted honey from the Arctic Circle to Hawaii (almost truffle-like, he says). But the honey from Peter and Meghann tastes like Chicago, with tones of clover and mint.
Illinois is a Mecca of mint and offers a cornucopia of clover. Uncountable flowers grow alongside the train rails that radiate from the hub of Chicago, as well as our lawns, vacant fields and curbsides. The Land of Lincoln hosts an enormous variety of these, let’s face it, weeds. While many of us dump chemicals to keep the plants from crowding out our Kentucky Bluegrass, the ladies of Chicago’s hives fetch the nectar and pollen from these and other flowers, except for the pollen they unintentionally spread from flower to flower, helping fruit grow.
But local honey can be a sticky thing. That is to say, without building a dome over a hive and the surrounding area, beekeepers can’t limit what flowers their flocks dine on. Heavy metals or other toxins in urban soil may end up in the flowers and then the honey. But that’s not necessarily worse than agricultural regions that use pesticides, which not only reach the honey, but can kill the bees themselves.
Anthony supports a notion I’ve heard from honey vendors: if you have local, seasonal allergies (ragweed, pollen, etc.), then eating honey made from local flowers might help inoculate you, over time, and reduce your allergies. I should mention that my own allergist warned it might also send you into anaphylactic shock. So don’t take this as medical advice.
What a Bee Gardener Does
Watching Anthony, it was a toss-up as to who was doing more work: him or the bees. Most of what he does, now that the initial investment and setup are done, involves inspecting the hives to make sure the queens look happy, babies are being born and honey is being packed away. On a sunny August day I helped him add a handmade box to each hive, making them taller and giving each queen more room to grow their families. Anthony moved with the steady, calm pace of a professional, although he is both a hobbyist and a volunteer. He began learning his craft three years ago at the Garfield Park Conservatory, which has a large staff of volunteer beekeepers and a lot of tropical flowers to pollinate. Although Anthony says the GPC bees prefer the outdoors.
Beekeeping duties at GPC and with Meghann and Peter involve acquiring and maintaining equipment, setting up, cleaning and expanding boxes, visually inspecting each frame and keeping the water trough filled (including some floating corks where bees perch while drinking). And when something goes wrong, Anthony helps the sick bees cure themselves.
In the past decade, the grim story has been repeated about mites that have helped devastate America’s honey bee population. These mites attack bee larvae—the eggs stored in the tiny chambers—and are initially carried into the hives by the workers. Anthony has avoided killing the mites with the powerful chemicals available (which have lost effectiveness over time) and instead sprinkles the frames with powdered sugar. Not only does the sugar act like talcum powder, loosening the mites grip on their hosts, but the fastidious bees can’t stand the mess. So they turn their grooming behavior up a notch, cleaning themselves of the sugar and, as a bonus, the noxious mites as well.
Helen Cameron of Uncommon Ground employs Russian bees in the hives of her rooftop garden on Devon Ave. The Eastern European insects are even more social than their Western European counterparts. So they are more apt to groom each other without human intervention—which keeps the mites more at bay.
Still, says Anthony, the mites have decimated the wild honey bee population and are probably a permanent factor in all managed hives. The key is controlling them, rather than eradicating them; the mites are here to stay. This means that any flowers you’ve had pollinated this year were probably the work of a bee coming from a hobbyist hive, whose beekeeper has husbanded the brood through its mite crisis. As a gardener, I would certainly like to thank the keeper whose bees gave me my tiny crop of tomatoes and melon, although it could be anybody within up to 5 miles of my garden.
In the broader scheme, you have to wonder about the cashews, cabbages and cucumbers that make up part of our national food supply, and how independent, local beekeepers might contribute to keeping it safe. In Illinois, with much of our cropland dedicated to corn (which doesn’t need bees), we may not be as conscious of how vital bees are as are, say, almond farmers in California. As required by the state, Anthony registered his hives with the Department of Agriculture. One of eight bee inspectors has checked them out and stands ready to offer advice when needed. As well as relying on his mentor at Garfield Park, Anthony can refer to the Illinois State Beekeepers Association, which is affiliated with the Northern Illinois Beekeepers Association and other regional groups.
Nearly all the resources he needs to obtain and care for his critters can be found locally. While Anthony could have purchased his mail-order colony starter kit from California or South Carolina, his queens come from downstate. There is a movement, he says, to breed more queens in northern areas so they can withstand our cooler climate. So in the end, the bees of Meghann and Peter are Illinois born, feeding on Illinois flowers, drinking water from local rain or Lake Michigan, and making honey that ultimately tastes like Illinois.