Field of Science


Think of the Bees

Last Tuesday, in downtown Chicago, I spent one of the best hours I can remember spending in the city. Admittedly, your ideal outing might not involve thousands of bees, or standing on the edge of a 12-story building, or both. That's OK. I'm glad it was me up there and not you.

The building was City Hall, the day was sunny, and the reason I was there (along with my magazine's designer/photographer) was to see a beekeeper named Michael Thompson. We met him on the sidewalk outside; he was sitting cross-legged and reading a magazine, with a bee-keeping hat next to him so we'd find each other.

Michael runs the Chicago Honey Co-op, a bee farm/community garden/educational center on the west side. They're a real feel-good operation. They employ people recently released from prison and sell their honey at farmers' markets. Most of their space is a concrete lot, but they've got vegetables thriving in piles of compost directly on top of the concrete. They also run, at Mayor Daley's behest, a program called Chicago Rooftop Honey.

Mayor Daley has been the push behind Chicago's green rooftops, of which the city has over 400. They save energy by insulating buildings, and suck carbon dioxide and pollutants out of the air. Three of these roofs also house Daley's beehives. Rooftop Honey, which comes from these hives, is sold at the Farmstand at Randolph and Michigan to benefit the Cultural Affairs department.

I wish I had some pictures of the garden to show you, because it was really beautiful. But I was there as editor, not photographer, so I resisted the urge to snap away. The three of us stepped out onto City Hall roof (I should tell you right now that they really, really don't like letting people on the roof, and it turned out we weren't technically supposed to be up there either, so please don't call them and say I'm telling people they can go on the roof) and it was like we'd taken an elevator right out of the city. Michael led us on a tour around the garden's perimeter and talked about how he'd had his first beehive at age 12 or so--in his bedroom. I told him he must have had very tolerant parents. I was aware of a faint wobble of vertigo and realized that I was walking next to an ankle-height wall 120 feet up from LaSalle St.

...If you're saying "What wall?" then you've got the right idea.

The rooftop garden is full of prairie plants, which made me picture the city from above as a whole patchwork of grassland swatches, gradually covering Chicago with the same land that used to be here.

Finally, Michael led us to the two beehives. They're small now, but over the course of the summer he'll stack more compartments on top, which tells the bees to store extra honey (and makes the hives tall and dramatic).

Before cracking open the hives to check on the bee populations, Michael got out two netted bee hats "just in case we needed them." What did that mean? In case of a bee-blitz? He lit a fire inside a little metal contraption and puffed the smoke into the tops of the hives, to mellow out the bees. Then he pulled off the roofs, one hive at a time. Michael wore gloves, but the only other protective gear any of us wore was light-colored clothing: he said the bees wouldn't notice us unless we made a big dark shape, like a bear. Sure enough, when he pulled out a wooden frame coated in bees and beckoned us to look close, we passed untouched through a cloud of bees. On the frame, we saw the tiny white larvae curled inside their honeycomb cells. We saw covered cells that held pupae. Thick honey was plastered in the corners.

Thanks to good luck or a clever guess from Michael, the queen was there, a larger bee marked with a dot of green paint. The other bees crawled around and over her. "They're trying to cover her up," Michael told us. After peering at a frame from the second hive, he worried that the population was too low. They need a dense population, thousands of vibrating bee bodies, to keep the developing young at a warm temperature.

We came down from the roof elated. But it was only 11 in the morning, and we (and our light-colored outfits) had to return to the office. I was back to the indoor world for the day, and at 5:00 I headed underground to the red line.

Nothing gets my blood pressure up like engaging in a shoving match with grown men in order to sardine myself into a rush-hour red line train. But while I sweated and enjoyed a view of someone's elbow, I suddenly thought: Think of the bees. I don't always obey voices from my head, but in this case I thought of the bees. No matter where I was, they were still in their flower garden: carrying pollen on furred legs, not resting, covering and keeping each other warm with their small bodies. It was a nice thought.

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