Classes Filling Up Quickly As Buzz Surrounding Urban Beekeeping Gets Louder

By Janet Rausa Fuller on January 11, 2013 8:14am 

 The Chicago Honey Co-op holds beekeeping classes indoors in January and "open hive" classes in the spring.
The Chicago Honey Co-op holds beekeeping classes indoors in January and "open hive" classes in the spring.
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Chicago Honey Co-op/S. Barton

CHICAGO — The time to jump on the urban beekeeping bandwagon is now.

The Garfield Park Conservatory and the Chicago Honey Co-op hold their first beekeeping classes of the year, on Saturday and again on Jan. 26, respectively, and there are just a few spots left.

There won't be actual bees at either class. They're hibernating for the winter. But attendees will hunker down for five hours and learn the basics of beekeeping, complete with mock hives at the conservatory.

"Those of us who are beekeepers have a lot of information in our heads that we want to get out there and share," said Michael Thompson, co-founder and farm manager of the Chicago Honey Co-op. "We want to talk people out of beekeeping, if necessary. It's not for everybody."

The co-op's class is timed so that Thompson can place bee orders from farmers in the south by the February deadline and receive them in April.

The conservatory's class is mandatory for people who want to join its volunteer beekeeping program, though those "on the fringe" are welcome, too, said program manager Melanie Harding.

"It's one of those endeavors where I would recommend taking the class before you commit to doing it," she said.

The buzz surrounding urban beekeeping, and the need for additional classes, grows with every season. There is a Chicago Beekeeping Meetup Group with 448 members. Hives take up space atop City Hall and the Chicago Cultural Center, and in backyards across the city. Local honey is a staple at area farmers markets.

"Beekeeping has become really hot, and rightly so," Harding said. "It deserves its time."

The Chicago Honey Co-op is now in its ninth year. Though it sells its honey online and at a few farmers markets and retail shops, its core is education and job training for the underemployed.

"We care about people who have trouble getting a job, especially if they've been incarcerated. That's a huge issue in Chicago," said Thompson.

Last March, the co-op had to move from its original site on the West Side, a vacant lot where the Sears Roebuck and Co. headquarters once stood, when the property was sold.

It now keeps its hives rent-free in three places — in an open field at 45th and Racine, on the headquarters of wholesaler Testa Produce; on the rooftop and the grounds of Christy Webber Landscaping, near Lake and Sacramento; and on an old railroad spur on the Far West Side, where Austin Boulevard and the Eisenhower Expressway meet.

"The support of a local and natural food production process goes hand in hand with what we do at Testa and what we stand for," said Testa's marketing director Angela Bader. "It worked out well for everyone."

Thompson, who has been tending hives since he was 12, said there's a much bigger payoff for beekeepers beyond the 100-plus pounds of sweet stuff just one of their hives can produce.

"Humans couldn't live without these insects pollinating flowers," he said. "People often don't understand that."

The Chicago Honey Co-Op's Jan. 26 class will be held at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum dining room. The cost is $75; register at chicagohoneycoop.com.

The Garfield Park Conservatory's class on Saturday is $70; register at garfield-conservatory.org. There will be additional classes in the spring.

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