Story by Anne Spiselman
Photographs of Michael S. Thompson by Carole Topalian
Michael S. Thompson knows a thing or two about bees.
The co-founder of the Chicago Honey Co-op in West Town has been a beekeeper for more than half a century, ever since he asked his parents for a beehive as a 12-year-old growing up in Wichita, Kansas. His father and brother soon caught the bug, and his hobby became a small family sideline selling honey to friends and relatives.
Thompson moved to Chicago in 1968 and resumed keeping honeybees half-a-dozen years later. Now 67, he’s responsible for roughly 65 hives within the city limits and continues to provide inspiration for others through the co-op’s programs, which range from producing honey and honey-based skin-care products to offering classes on beekeeping and beeswax-candle making.
He’s also become an expert on urban beekeeping and says it has been growing in popularity in the last two decades. Perhaps the only thing neither he nor anyone else knows is how many beekeepers or hives there are in Chicago. Beekeepers are required to register with the Illinois Department of Agriculture, but the department doesn’t break down the information by city. The state had 2,766 registered beekeepers in 2014, a number that had increased annually from 1,107 in 2002, though there actually were more in 1989 (2,783) and 1988 (2,966). As of July 2014, Cook County had 321 apiaries with 1,196 colonies.
The general buzz suggests that beekeeping is booming both as a hobby and as a business. The Chicago Beekeeping Meetup Group, an online community started in 2007, lists close to 700 members. Wild Blossom Meadery & Winery, on the South Side for 15 years, maintains hives in several places, among them the roof of the Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile, to produce honey for its beverages. Like the Chicago Honey Co-op, Sweet Beginnings, a wholly owned subsidiary of the North Lawndale Employment Network, sells raw honey and honey-infused body-care products from its own hives and provides job opportunities for area residents facing barriers to employment. The NLEN also partnered with the Chicago Department of Aviation to set up and monitor the world’s largest airport apiary at O’Hare. It began in 2011 with 28 hives and now has 75, home to more than a million bees that make thousands of pounds of honey for Sweet Beginnings’ beelineTM line.
Thompson oversees hives for the city in four locations, all of them on rooftops. Two are atop City Hall, four at the Chicago Cultural Center, two at Gallery 37 and two at the Lurie Garden in Millennium Park. This is in addition to the co-op’s hives, which are spread out among Testa Produce in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, the green roof of Christy Webber Landscapes on the West Side and the Precious Blood Center community garden on the South Side. There’s also a hive at preSERVE garden, a partnership between the co-op, the North Lawndale Greening Committee, NeighborSpace and Slow Food Chicago at 12th Place and Central Park Ave. Fruit trees and strawberries grow on the single 25- by 60-foot lot, along with peas, peppers, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, greens, garlic and much more, all for co-op members and the neighbors.
Thompson attributes the interest in bees, which along with other insects are credited with pollinating more than 30% of the world’s crops, to people’s increasing awareness of the environment and related issues including healthy food. He also points out that urban beekeeping differs from that in rural areas—and has definite advantages.
The first is the ready availability of nectar and pollen sources. “Chicago offers a vast variety and quantity of plants, so food is never a problem, and the honeybees are very healthy,” Thompson says. “Plants left over from the city’s farming days include all seven types of clover grown in the upper Midwest, and the city planted millions of linden (basswood) and other shade trees that beekeepers would give anything to be close to.” He adds that honeybees are very particular and seek out the nectar with the most sugar within two miles of the hive, generally avoiding anything toxic. The result is extremely high-quality honey.
Shorter travel times make tending the hives less of a chore for urban beekeepers, who often can just ride a bike or take the train to different sites rather than driving 50 or 100 miles. Thompson says he also finds the network of volunteers and media attention to be big pluses. There’s even an urban version of an ancient rural tradition. “When a beekeeper found a field of alfalfa, he might ask the farmer if he could put a hive on it and harvest the honey,” he explains. “The same kind of handshake agreement has prevailed here, and in some cases the companies have contacted me.”
Thompson admits that it’s harder to produce specific varietal honeys—such as alfalfa, blueberry or buckwheat—in the city, and that the population density makes fearful neighbors a potential problem, even though honeybees are less prone to stinging than some species (of which there are more than 20,000). On the other hand, he says that vandalism like the recent theft of three hives in McKinley Park is a rarity here but a longtime issue in rural areas, where some people brand their hives. (Honeybees are considered livestock.) As for city regulations, he finds the new rules generous and officials consistently helpful.
The City Hall hives are doing well, according to Thompson. He checks them—and the others—weekly during the summer, and in mid-May each had 20,000 to 30,000 bees. By June and July, the per-hive population swells to 50,000 to 60,000, all born on site, and with the honey, the hives weigh 200–300 pounds each, so another co-op member, a volunteer or an intern helps. Thompson estimates that each hive produces 40 to 50 pounds of surplus honey over and above what the bees need to sustain themselves during the winter.
“Honeybees have adapted to extreme cold, so in winter they form a cluster on the comb and move their wings to generate heat,” he says. “Unless it’s warm enough for them to be flying, we don’t examine them in the winter, because we don’t want to disturb them.”
However, they do lose some hives in cold weather. Thompson says he started noticing about 15 years ago that more bees seemed to be dying more often. He doesn’t know if this is related to the infamous and mysterious “colony collapse syndrome,” which has been blamed on parasites, pesticides, poor nutrition and a combination of all three, but one project he and the co-op have been working on the last few years is becoming self-sustaining. Initially, they used Italian and Russian bees bought from suppliers who raised them in Louisiana and Georgia, but now their own queens lay 1,000 to 2,000 eggs a day, and Thompson and an intern have been learning the delicate process of queen grafting, so they can replace their own hives when they die.
Co-founded in 2004 by Tim Brown and Stephanie Arnett with Thompson, the Chicago Honey Co-op has about 30 members, though that number fluctuates as does the number of beehives. Thompson cares deeply about prison reform, and many of the three to four employees per season were previously incarcerated. Typically two to four interns also are on hand. The West Town headquarters doesn’t have a retail store, nor is the honey served at restaurants (with a few exceptions), but the co-op’s raw honey, honey mustard, bath and body products and/or beeswax candles are available at the Green City Market and Logan Square Farmers Market, as well as at stores including the Blue Door Farm Stand, Green Home Experts, Provenance Food and Wine and Publican Quality Meats. They’re also at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum, where some one-day classes are given; others are hands-on at the Christy Webber Landscapes apiary.
The co-op is always testing things and working on new projects, and Thompson says one of his dreams is to make mead, the alcoholic honey drink the Vikings loved, on a larger scale. He’s been offering it in the co-op’s CSA boxes for about five years but can’t really sell it without a license.
When asked if he thinks urban beekeeping has peaked, Thompson—who used to be a landscape gardener—likens it to gardening, which just keeps growing exponentially. He also says his greatest reward after 12 years at Chicago’s farmers markets is being part of the thriving local scene and the network that has formed here.
“We stay close to the farmers, chefs, educators and artists who struggle to lead the urban food movement, and that’s the best gift imaginable,” he concludes.
Anne Spiselman is a seasoned reporter, covering nearly every aspect of the Chicago local food scene. She also loves writing about culinary travel, performing arts and culture. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Sun-times, Crane's Chicago and Plate to name just a few. She is a regular contributor to Edible Chicago.
Article originally published in Edible Chicago's Summer 2015 issue. Photographs of Michael Thompson copyright by Carole Topalian.
For more information: chicagohoneycoop.com.