Bike A Bee's Jana Kinsman teaches beekeeping classes and makes hive-related house calls. [Adam Alexander]
BACK OF THE YARDS — As a beekeeper who runs her business by bicycle, Jana Kinsman is in a category all her own.
Now she’s found a way to further her niche: by making honeybee house calls.
Say a giant cluster of bees has, for reasons unclear to you the clueless urban dweller, decided to set up camp on the side of your porch or in that one tree in your backyard.
The city won't touch it if it's on private property.
But for a small fee — “mostly whatever a person can give, whether it’s $10 or $50,” she said — Kinsman will bike on over and remove the offending swarm, which, she will tell you, is harmless. (Swarms form when the queen bee, trailed by a third of the worker bees, leaves her hive in search of new digs. "You can grab that mass of bees and put them in a new hive. They're very docile," Kinsman said.)
Or if you’re a novice beekeeper and you notice something inside your hive that doesn’t look quite right, call Kinsman. She’ll take a look and tell you what it is and how to get the hive humming again.
That actually happened to Kinsman — the caller was from a school and the strange growth was excess honeycomb — and it inspired her to add house calls to the growing list of services she now offers through her 4-year-old business, Bike-A-Bee.
She also has started what she calls “confidence classes” for novice beekeepers. The hands-on, three-hour sessions cost $48 and take place at The Plant, the sustainable food business incubator in the Back of the Yards and Bike A Bee’s new headquarters as of late March.
“There’s this huge missing gray area between reading all of the books and then starting your own beehive. It’s really scary, right?” Kinsman said.
It’s actually not that scary, she said. It is incredibly rewarding though not without its ups and downs.
Jana Kinsman tends to hives in gardens around the city. [Brent Knepper]
The Pilsen resident got the beekeeping bug after taking a class at the Chicago Honey Co-Op, where she now teaches on a volunteer basis, and working for a beekeeper in Oregon.
In 2012, she started placing and tending hives — by bike — in community gardens and other sites across the city, including The Plant.
Last year, she had 18 locations. This year, she’s scaled back to four in the city and two on farms outside of Chicago.
“Those I get to by borrowed car,” she said. “I even have a sticker on the honey that says ‘borrowed car.’ I have to be honest."
She had rented a garage in Pilsen to store equipment but with no running water or other useful features, it wasn’t ideal.
Now, as a tenant at The Plant, she’s that much closer to her rooftop hives and to other like-minded small food businesses. There’s a kombucha brewer in the building she wants to work with.
She also has collaborated with Pleasant House Bakery's head baker Wes Ervin on honey bread using wheat from the Ottawa, Ill., farm where some of her hives are located. It's not the last version they'll make together.
"We're working on a sourdough bread almost completely focused on Jana's amazing honey," Ervin said in an email. "We'll add as much honey as possible and let the wild yeast ferment the dough into something amazing. I'm really interested to see how much honey flavor we can pull from a whole-wheat bread."
The Plant sells her honey in the lobby farmstand during its Saturday farmers market; five other shops also carry Bike A Bee honey, including Belli’s in Pilsen and Green Grocer in West Town.
Classes and house calls, not honey sales, will help Bike A Bee become a more sustainable business, Kinsman said.
“I know how valuable it is for me to get somebody’s help when I feel clueless and call an expert in, so I hope I can be that for other people trying to figure out beekeeping,” she said.
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