Join the Swarm: How to Become a Chicago Beekeeper
Chicago is buzzing with bees. Beehives seem to be everywhere, from backyards to the rooftops of apartment buildings to Chicago’s City Hall.
If you’re interested in starting your own hive — and enjoying the honey that comes with it — here’s a roundup of things to know.
Know the laws. The City of Chicago allows you to have up to five hives or colonies of honeybees on your property. Other than that, the city has few restrictions on bees. You do, however, have to register with the Illinois Department of Agriculture.
Make room. Before becoming an urban beekeeper, make sure you have enough outdoor space for a beehive. While there’s no legal requirement in the city, you’ll generally need at least 10 feet in front of the hive entrance without any obstructions, according to the Chicago Honey Co-op’s Best Practices for Urban Beekeepers.
“Be sure bees have fly-away space,” says Naaman Gambill, Garfield Park Green Program coordinator and head beekeeper. “You don’t want to keep their hive directly in front of a sidewalk, and you do want to keep it out of the way of neighbors.”
Check with the neighbors. Make sure the neighbors are OK with having a beehive nearby, says the Chicago Honey Co-op’s Best Practices for Urban Beekeepers. If you rent, “You’ll also want to be sure that there is nothing written in your lease prohibiting bees,” Gambill says. It’s a good idea to check with your landlord, too.
Estimate for expenses. You can spend hundreds of dollars on equipment (the bees, the hives and outfit, including a lightweight jacket, veil, gloves) or you can be more cost-conscious, Gambill says.
“You can go to a thrift store and get a white-collared shirt or you can buy a $150 beekeeping suit,” Gambill says. You can also invest in a complete beginner’s kit, with the beekeeping outfit, hive, smoker (which blocks pheromones) and hive tools for about $400, he says.
Set-Up and Care
Order the hive. You can order a hive online at BeverlyBees.com. Gambill suggests starting with a Langsroth hive, which is basically a bunch of stackable boxes. Order 10 to start with, Gambill says. Prices range from $100 to $300, according to BeverlyBees.com. The website can help you with the assembly.
Order the bees. Once you have your hive and your wardrobe, order a 3-pound package of bees, which contains about 12,000 bees and a queen bee, says Gambill. They’ll arrive in a shoebox-sized wooden box, which you can find through regional beekeeping suppliers (such as Belmont Feed and Seed and Brushy Mountain Bee Farm).
Maintain the hive. Gambill recommends going into your hive at least once every 10 days, as an absolute minimum. “As a beekeeper, you’ll be playing the role of one part doctor and one part landlord, balancing health checkups with checking in to see that your bees have enough space,” Gambill says. As you peek into your hive weekly, you’ll want to be sure there’s a steady increase in the bee population.
Deal with stings. “Bee stings are part of this hobby,” Gambill says. Once you’ve been stung, remove the stinger by using your fingernail to scrape it out instead of squeezing it out, he says. Many people don’t realize as long as the stinger is still inside you, venom is still pumping into the body, Gambill says. Once the stinger is removed, use the smoker to smoke the area around the bee sting and around the bees in the hive to disrupt communication back to the other bees that there is danger, he says.
Harvest honey. “Don’t expect to harvest honey your first year,” says Gambill. “It will take bees a while to get up to speed.” It takes a lot of work for honeybees to store and accumulate honey before you can take it away from them: After all, each honeybee worker produces one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime, he says.
Prep for All Seasons
Chicago has hot summers and cold winters, both of which can threaten the hive.
In the summer, you can paint the hive white to lessen the heat, Gambill says. You should also have fresh water near or on top of your hive for the bees. “I like to add some wine corks to the bowl of water — these will serve as buoys for the bees,” Gambill says.
“In the winter, bees will condense inside the hive — huddle all together inside the hive to keep warm,” Gambill says.
You can also wrap the hive in black tar paper to keep the heat inside the hive, Gambill says. Also, put a sugar board on top of the hive instead of water (since water would freeze). Hot air rises, which means the sugar will produce a condensation and act as nectar for the bees during the coldest months.
Now that you’re up to speed on the beekeeping basics, you’re primed to learn more about this new potential hobby. Check out beginning beekeeping classes at Chicago Honey Co-op, Garfield Park Conservatory and Angelic Organics.