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Shedd Aquarium's Honeybees Buzz with Activity

By Justin Breen | September 17, 2013 7:08am
 With help from the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance’s volunteer beekeepers, Shedd Aquarium's two garden beehives survived the winter, and the aquarium recently added a third beehive.
Shedd Aquarium beehives
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SOUTH LOOP — Christine Nye said the honeybees at the Shedd Aquarium "are really lucky."

Unlike most bees nationwide, which dine on only a few varieties of plants, Shedd's busy bees have the option of more than 1,000 fruits and vegetables in an organic garden that surrounds the aquarium. They pollinate the plants, which are used to feed the aquarium's animals and many of Shedd's workers, too.

"Having the bees here perfectly demonstrates how the system works. We provide food for them, they provide food for us," said Nye, Shedd's manager of horticulture programs. "You can walk anywhere on our campus and see the bees doing their work."

So far, the bees have flourished on their plentiful diet, which consists of 27 types of heirloom peppers like Orange Bells, Ancho Gigantea and Purple Beauties, and a healthy dose of tomatoes like Paul Robeson, Principe Borghese and Red Zebra

Shedd Aquarium beehives
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Two beehives were installed on the aquarium's south side in 2011 as part of a partnership with the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance. Those hives have survived, and one over the summer produced a new queen, which can lay as many as 1,000 eggs per day.

A third hive was added this year, giving Shedd about 170,000 honeybees.

"It's great to see a colony that takes care of itself and that we have another hive," said Naaman Gambill, the greening programs coordinator at Garfield Park Conservatory and a master beekeeper.

Gambill visits the Shedd about once every two weeks, making sure the bees are happy and have enough room in their hives. If not, Gambill will add "supers," wooden boxes that act as extra levels in the hive.

One-third of all bees nationwide did not survive last winter, perhaps due to use of chemicals and pesticides in lawns, gardens and farms. Nye said April's extremely wet weather played a huge role, too, in the local population decline. Of the 20 hives at Garfield Park Conservatory, only 10 made it through the winter, Gambill said.

Gambill, of Roscoe Village, said the Shedd has the space for about 12 beehives. Nye said the aquarium's goal is to have enough bees that it begins to raise its own stock and cross-populate with other beehives at Millennium Park and City Hall.

"That way, we can have bees that can better withstand the weather here and the pressures," she said.

In the three years that the bees have been at Shedd, Nye said no one has been stung, noting the misconception that they are dangerous. Nye and Gambill recently lifted one of the hives, exposing tens of thousands of bees, who wanted nothing more than to move around their living quarters.

Gambill even picked a few bees up with his fingers to show their docility.

"Bees don't want to sting you," Nye said. "They're just looking for a place to live."