Backyard Beekeeping

Honey Bee

Last fall, my Chicago neighborhood newspaper The Bowmanville Bee featured a story about a local resident who had a beehive in a neighborhood backyard.   Interested to find out more, I contacted the beekeeper, Heidi, who was nice enough to meet with me and talk about beekeeping. 

Chicago Farm & Table: What inspired you to get started in beekeeping? 

Heidi: I first learned about beekeeping as a volunteer docent at the Garfield Park Conservatory.  I had taken one of the classes they offer on beekeeping and found I enjoyed tending hives.  I went on to be a volunteer coordinator/beekeeper for Angelic Organics on Woodlawn.   I’ve continued my interest by now tending my own hive.  Since I don’t have a yard, I use the backyard of a friend as home for the hive.

 What was the initial start-up cost to build your own hive?

It was a little pricey to get going – buying the hive, associated tools and the bees.  The approximate price to buy a self-assembly hive and a start-up community of bees is from $350 to $500.  

How are bees obtained?
Bees can be obtained from a nearby apiary, or by mail order.  I ordered bees from an apiary in Indiana, which gets its bees from the south.  The queen bee is a Minnesota Hygienic, which is the type of Italian bee, bred to have more hygienic behavior and tolerance to pests. 
What’s involved in upkeep of the hive?
It varies depending on the season.  In a nutshell, spring is about building up brood and population and stopping swarms.  During the summer it’s about supering the hive (adding boxes) to give the bees a place to make honey and honey harvest.  In the fall, it’s making sure your bees are healthy and strong for winter.  Throughout all the seasons, inspection focuses on the health of the queen, the health of the brood, and keeping an eye out for pests and diseases and knowing how to treat those things accordingly. 

Chicago Backyard Beehive

Heidi's Beehive

Do bees have to be kept in a yard?  How about on a rooftop?
Yes, a rooftop is an excellent place to keep bees.  Uncommon Ground Restaurant, and the True Nature Store keep their bees on rooftops for example.  There are also bees on the rooftop of City Hall, and the Cultural Center.  There are more bees on roofs in Chicago than you’d think. 
What challenges are faced maintaining the health of the hive?
There are many diseases and parasites that affect honey bees.  Bees do not have a strong immune system.  I practice preventative measures to lessen the likelihood of illness – for instance sprinkling the bees with powdered sugar to encourage more self grooming and therefore lessen the likelihood of the vorroa mite affecting them.  Some big honey producing operations use pesticides, but I prefer to use other methods.  Bees are constantly under threat, and the challenges are increasing.      
Do honey bees have a difficult time surviving our Chicago winters?
There are some hazards that face bees surviving our winters, like mice getting into the hive to get warm.  Or, if a winter is too cold for too long, the bees won’t have a chance to go on a cleansing flight, (they don’t defecate in the hive) and this could result in dysentery, called nosema.  If the hive is not strong and healthy going into winter, their chances of survival are weakened.  To survive during the cold months, the bees cluster around the queen, and can generate heat up to around 97 degrees Fahrenheit.  The way to tell if the hive is alive and healthy during the winter season; is to gently knock on the side – you should hear the bees buzz back in reply. 
What is your yearly honey yield?
Last year, my single hive produced about 100 lbs. of honey, which is a large yield (the Illinois state average is around 50 lbs. per hive). 
How about selling the honey?
Yes, I sell some jars to friends and family on a word of mouth basis.  Some jars were offered for a suggested donation to my local community organization. 
What types of bees are in the hive?
Italian – North Central Carnolian. 
Do you need to have a plentitude of flowers in your yard for the bees?
Bees fly in a 3 to 5 mile radius of the hive searching for food sources.  The city is a fantastic place for honey bees simply because there are so many different types of plants blooming from early spring to late fall. 
Is your honey organic?
Probably not.  Since the bees are ranging up to 5 miles away for their food source, it would be difficult to ensure that all the flowers they are visiting haven’t been contaminated by non-organic chemicals (either intentionally or unintentionally).  But my hive itself is strictly chemical free. 
What about your safety?
Beekeeping is very safe, for both me as a beekeeper and my neighbors.  It’s true that during an inspection I may get stung occasionally, but the honey bee is not an aggressive creature.  They are only acting defensively to protect their hive.  This means if you leave the hive alone, bees will leave you alone.  They’re too busy gathering pollen and nectar to give anything else a second thought.  It’s important to draw a clear distinction between the honey bee and yellow jackets.  When most people say they’ve been stung by a bee, it was actually a yellow jacket.  Yellow jackets are aggressive, and unlike a honey bee which dies when it stings, can sting multiple times.  Visually they are different.  A yellow jacket is bright yellow with black stripes, and a honey bee is hairy, with tan and brown stripes.  And, of course, both honey bees and yellow jackets are different from the bumblebee, which are those big round fuzzy bees lazily flying from flower to flower.  It takes a lot to upset a bumblebee.  For the most part, you can actually pet them and they won’t even notice you.  The only instances of bumblebee stings that I know of are because they were stepped on or sat on.  {See below photos for identification}
What’s been the response of the human neighbors of the hive?
Some people tend to be nervous when they hear about a hive nearby.  But honey bees are only defensive of their hive, in other words they are not like yellow jackets which are aggressive.   Once the neighbors became familiar with the nature of the bees and the hive, they became accepting and interested .  One of the keys to backyard beekeeping is to remember that you are an ambassador for your bees.  It’s important to take the time to educate about honey bees when you’re able.  Initial knee-jerk fear decreases tremendously when they see you inspecting the hive, and telling them about the bees.  In time, neighbors realize the bees are good to have around, especially if they have gardens. 
What do you recommend to someone interested in starting their own hive?
Read lots of books.  Meet other beekeepers.  Try volunteering first at a local organization that maintains hives – if it’s something you like, then the investment in a hive and bees in your own yard will be worth the expense and effort. 
Can people contact you if they have questions about beekeeping?
Yes.  My email is
Suggested Resources for Classes and additional information:
Chicago Honey Co-op
Garfield Park Conservatory
Angelic Organics
Sweet Beginnings
Pilsen Beekeepers Association 
Also, check out these movies:
Queen of the Sun
Nicotine Bees

Honey Bee with Pollen

Yellow Jacket

Bumble Bee

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