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Home To More Than Just Bees

Sydney Barton

Wolf Spiders living in the inner cover of a beehive.

Wolf Spiders living in the inner cover of a beehive.

Beehives are often homes to other insects, spiders, and sometimes mice. A couple of wolf spiders took up residence in one of the hives we take care of on the roof of Chicago Cultural Center. They have a built in food supply of any honey bee that isn't quick enough to get out of the way. This area of the hive is above and separated from the main hive. 

Our New Partner Organization

Sydney Barton

Chicago Honey Co-op Training Center, a mouthful for sure, is our brand new 501c-3 partner organization. We started it because we wanted to do more beekeeping education.  We will still be beekeeping, going to market and teaching classes but the Training Center will be able to focus on getting funding to bring more beekeeping and environmental education to schools, community groups, and others.

Take a look at what we want to do and consider making a donation to

Chicago Honey Co-op Training Center



Rooftop Beekeeping

Sydney Barton

 Pritzker Pavillion and Cloudgate (the Bean) viewed from the roof of Chicago Cultural Center

 Pritzker Pavillion and Cloudgate (the Bean) viewed from the roof of Chicago Cultural Center

One of the benefits of beekeeping on rooftops in Chicago.

Biking to the Farmers Markets

Sydney Barton

cargo trailer 8-2-14.jpg

Just before we started the farmers markets, we found a used Bikes at Work cargo trailer on Craigslist so we can take all our honey to market without a car. SCORE! Now to trick it out with a sign or two.

Sweet Summer Solstice 2011

Sydney Barton

Come on out and visit us on Friday June 24th for the most affordable fundraiser in Chicago. For $15 and a potluck dish to share, you get to party outdoors on one of the longest evenings of the year at our apiary on Fillmore St.

If you have never visited our apiary, this year is the year to come out to the Solstice potluck. The food is always excellent, there is plenty of beer and wine and the apiary is pretty spectacular.

Slow Food Chicago has sponsored and coordinated this event for us for the last 3 years and everyone who comes has a great time. You can buy tickets and get details on the Slow Food Chicago website.

If you take a look at the satellite map, you can see how large the space is. Plenty of room for a big party!

We will be giving tours of the beehives and community farm and will have honey, candles and more for sale.

Hope to see you there!


Live Bees Rush!

Sydney Barton

Live Bees Attract Attention

Live Bees Attract Attention

5 Queens delivered from Southern Illinois today. Priority small flat rate boxes are perfect for this. The black cap on the end of the queen cage holds sugar candy for the bees to eat.

Marked Queen in cage.JPG

The Queen is on the right. She is marked with a white dot and shipped with four attendants who take care of her during the trip. The dot will make it a little easier to find her inside the hive.

Live bees attract attention.

Essential Equipment for New Beekeepers Part Two

Sydney Barton

After the hive is set up a beekeeper will need a few tools and bits of clothing in order to manage the hive.

Bee tools.JPG

1. Hive Tool:

It would be impossible to inspect a beehive without a hive tool. That is the beekeeper name for a pry bar. It is used to open and inspect hives, and scrape wax and propolis out of the hive. It can be an emergency hammer, scrape bee stingers off skin and pull nails. You can’t keep bees without one.

2. Smoker:

It is a misnomer to say that using smoke “calms” the bees. That isn’t what happens. The smoke distracts the bees, allowing the beekeeper to make an inspection or harvest frames of honey. It is basically a metal can with a bellows and a spout attached to it. Beekeepers get to start a fire inside it, close the lid  and then use the smoke to manage the bees.

3. Gloves:

Not all beekeepers use gloves but since that is where a beekeeper is most likely to get stung, it might pay to wear some. There are different kinds made with different materials but any good fitting sturdy pair of gloves will work.

4. Hat and Veil:

:More important than gloves is a  hat and veil. A veil is just a mesh screen that keeps the bees away from your head. You may be tempted on a sunny day when the bees are busy, to work your hive without a veil. That is the day a guard bee will go right for your face.

5. Frame spacer:

This tool makes it easy to properly space the frames of honey or brood inside the hive. Proper spacing is very important because if frames are placed to close together or far apart, the bees will either close the gap or build more comb in between the frames. While this is perfectly logical from a bee’s perspective,  it makes working a hive more time consuming and messy for the beekeeper.

6. Bee brush:

This brush has long soft bristles and is used when a beekeeper is harvesting frames of honey. A frame of honey is pulled up out of the hive and the bees are gently brushed off, back into the hive, Then the beekeeper quickly hides the frame of honey in a separate box with a lid so the bees can’t get at it again.

7. Feeder:

When a new package of bees is installed, they go into an empty hive with no food. A feeder is used to supply sugar syrup until there is enough natural forage for the bees to bring back to the hive to make into honey.

8. Beekeeping book or Beekeeper:

 Everyone starting out in beekeeping needs a good source of information. Beekeeping is fascinating but can be very confusing almost all the time.

A good book or experienced beekeeper are invaluable.

Essential Equipment for New Beekeepers Part One

Sydney Barton

This is the time of year when beekeepers order new equipment and supplies for the coming beekeeping season. If you are just starting beekeeping this year the numbers and variety of equipment  available can get pretty confusing. So here is a list of basics and why you will need them.

1. Hive boxes (also called supers):

These come in three sizes - deep, medium and shallow. Traditionally, 2 deep boxes have been used as brood chambers with 3 or 4 or more boxes (medium or shallow) on top as needed for honey storage.  There is actually no hard and fast rule here. Many beekeepers use all medium boxes throughout the hive. This helps reduce the weight of each box for lifting. If you have back problems you could even use shallow boxes all throughout the hive. So, 6 boxes as a minimum for deep and medium. More if you wanted to use only shallow boxes.  (Top bar hives are an alternative but they deserve a blog post on their own.) You will only need two boxes to start out, adding boxes (supers) as needed for extra room and honey storage.

2. Frames and Foundation:

For each box you have for your hive, you will need 10 wooden frames that fit that box and foundation for the frames. Foundation is intended to give the bees a head start on their comb building. You can buy all beeswax foundation or plastic foundation with a thin coat of beeswax applied to it. Alternatively, you can provide empty frames and let the bees build their comb from scratch but that can be a bit tricky and it takes the bees longer to get established.

3. Top Cover and Inner Cover:

:There are two covers for a hive that are used together. The inner cover goes directly on top of the top box of your hive and has a hole in the center. It helps to both ventilate and insulate the hive. The top cover is usually called a telescoping cover. It is like the lid of a box and is most often covered in galvanized metal which makes it waterproof, keeping the bees protected from the elements.

4. Bottom Board and Hive Stand:

The last two parts of a beehive. The hive rests directly on top of the bottom board. Traditionally these are made of solid wood but screened bottom boards have become an important alternative. Screened bottom boards are a great help for ventilating the hive in Summer and for control of Varroa mites. The hive stand can be made of anything solid enough to support the weight of a full beehive. Wooden hive stands are available for sale but bricks, concrete blocks or found lumber are just as good. What is important to remember is that the hive needs to be at least 6 inches off the ground.

5. Entrance Reducer:  

There is a space between the bottom board and the bottom box of the hive where the bees enter and leave. Depending on the time of year, a small piece of wood with different sized holes cut out of it is used to enlarge or reduce the size of the hive entrance.

So, that is part one of the basic list of necessary equipment for starting a beehive.

Bird's Eye View of Chicago Honey Co-op

Sydney Barton

Apiary location as of Fall of 2011. We moved to 3 new apiaries in the Spring of 2012.

Apiary location as of Fall of 2011. We moved to 3 new apiaries in the Spring of 2012.

Courtesy of Google, a satellite shot of our apiary. Notice the extent of the community farm to the left of the concrete. We opened the space up to neighbors and friends for growing food. Our Friends at the North Lawndale Greening Committee help to manage the growing space . 

For reference - the concrete squares are 20 feet by 20 feet. The image was most likely taken any time from late June to mid August 2010.

Click on the picture to see a larger version.

The Queen is Dead, Long Live the Queen

Sydney Barton

queen bee 2.jpg

Every beekeeper runs into a testy hive once in awhile. Bees can get defensive for a lot of reasons. Most often, it is the beekeepers fault, dropping something, bumping the hive, moving too quickly, disturbing a frame of bees.

The weather can make bees cranky too. If the weather is cool and cloudy, a lot more bees will be at home that day with nothing else to do but defend the hive. This is why it isn’t a good idea to open up a hive when rain is threatening.  A poor nectar flow can can have the same effect.

On a sunny day during a good nectar flow, when a hive is opened, the bees should be so absorbed by their work that they barely notice you. That is why, when a beekeeper has a hive that is consistently defensive no matter how good the weather is, something must be done.

In a case like this, the queen has passed down a trait of excessive defensiveness to her young and since all the bees in the hive have hatched from her eggs, they all are defensive. This means a hive that is difficult to work with and potentially hazardous.

So how does a beekeeper change the behavior of this problem hive? By changing the genetics and introducing a new queen. Easier said than done.

The hive in question is on a rooftop in downtown Chicago. It is an extremely successful hive with lots of bees storing lots of honey. Just what a beekeeper likes to see, but very difficult to work on.

In order to introduce the new queen, the hive must be opened up and the old queen must be found and killed.  Harsh, yes but necessary.

It is never easy to find a queen in a hive that is many boxes tall and full of bees. The task is extra difficult when there are angry bees flying all around. Lots of smoke is required to confuse and distract them while the search goes on for the soon to be ex-queen. Eventually she was found and executed.

As quickly as possible, the new queen, inside a small screened box called a queen cage, was placed inside the hive. Doing this allows the bees to get used to her pheromone scents and accept her as their new queen. If all goes well, they will release her and she will begin laying eggs.

Worker bees with her genetics will begin to hatch out of their cells 21 days from the day they were laid. At the rate of 1000 to 2000 eggs per day, her takeover will be complete in a matter of weeks.

Can we be certain the hive will be as successful or productive or even less defensive? Not completely.

Photo courtesy of University of Illinois Extension

Sweet Summer Solstice Postponed

Sydney Barton

A big storm went through Chicago today and the Solstice event we had planned for this evening has been postponed until Sunday June 20 at 4 PM. Keep updated by checking here on Sunday, following us on Twitter or Facebook. If you want to attend and haven't signed up yet visit Slow Food Chicago to get details.

A couple of Co-op members were at the bee farm when the storm came. Fortunately we have a big shipping container for storage that they could stay in while the storm went through. They reported that it was very exciting and all the hives are fine.

What To Do If You See A Swarm Of Bees

Sydney Barton

swarm on vine.jpg

Every year around this time we start to get emails from people who have a swarm of honey bees in their yard or on their fence or in a tree. In the past they may have just called an exterminator. Now, because of the publicity about Colony Collapse Disorder, they want to avoid killing the bees and just want to find them a new home.

Even so, many people are still under the impression that a swarm of bees is a dangerous thing, ready to sting at the drop of a hat. The opposite is true. Honey bees clustered together in a swarm are surrounding their queen who has left the hive to find a new home, leaving behind a new queen and the remaining bees. This is the way honey bees propagate new colonies and in this day and age, is a very good thing.

A clustered swarm of honey bees is in a holding pattern. They aren't aggressive because they have no honey or young brood to defend. They are waiting for scout bees to come back from searching for a new home.

Before they left the hive with the queen, they all ate a lot of honey to get them through the few days it might take to find new a place to take up residence. They will use the energy from the honey to keep themselves and the queen warm while they wait.

When the scout bees come back, they will transmit the location of the new digs to the rest of the colony and they will all take off, fly around to get their bearings and go on to move in. When the first bees arrive, they will release a pheromone to help the rest of the bees find the new location.

Admittedly, a swarm of flying bees is pretty scary looking but you could stand in the middle of one as I have and not get stung unless you started swatting at them. Sure they will bump into you but they are very purposeful insects and are concentrating on the task at hand.

So, if you see a swarm of honey bees, you can call your local beekeeper to take them away or just let them find their own way in the world. 

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Why We are Starting a CSA

Sydney Barton

Cory at Market.JPG

Like a lot of farmers who rely on farmers markets for most of our income, Chicago Honey Co-op gets the great majority of it's sales in the Summer and Fall.  From about July to October every year for the past six years we have gone to market on Saturday and Sunday to sell our honey, beeswax candles and bath products.  Of course with income concentrated in such a short time period, that leaves a big part of the year with reduced income.  Having online stores helps somewhat but doesn't provide the infusion of cash we need in the first half of the year.

This is identical to the situation that farmers face and it is why the CSA was invented.  For those of you who don't know CSA stands for community supported agriculture.  Community Supported Agriculture started in the early 1980's in New England as a means of connecting communities with their local farmers.  Members pay up-front to provide the farmer with much-needed capital at the beginning of the season and collect produce (in our case, honey, candles etc.) in a CSA box later in the year.

We have talked among ourselves for a couple of years about starting a CSA but because of the nature of our products, felt a little guilty about making people buy bath products or candles along with the honey in a CSA box if all they really wanted was honey.  An article in the magazine Growing for Market helped us solve that problem.  In short, the farmers who wrote the article switched their CSA from a weekly produce box to a debit style system.  CSA customers pay for a share like any other CSA but instead of receiving a box they get to pick out what they want at the market stand and what they choose is subtracted from their credit balance.

We think this approach will work much better for both us and our customers.  A share will cost $48.00 and can be used at either the 2 farmers markets we will be selling at this year.  In addition CSA members will be able to choose from other products from the bee farm that we usually don't sell at the markets and will get discounted admission to events and tours we have at the apiary.

So, here we go!

You can find details about our CSA and sign up on our CSA page.

Hope to see you all at market!

A Short List of Useful Books About Bees and Beekeeping

Sydney Barton

Honey Bees And Beekeeping - A Year in the Life of an Apiary - Keith Delaplane/University of Georgia Center for Continuing Education

The Backyard Beekeeper - Revised and Updated: An Absolute Beginners Guide to Keeping Bees in Your Yard and Garden - Kim Flottum/Quarry Books

Natural Beekeeping - Natural Approaches to Modern Apiculture - Ross Conrad/Chelsea Green Publishing

American Honey Plants
- Frank C Pellet/Dadant

At the Hive Entrance - H Storch/European Apicultural Editions (out of print)

Beekeeper's Backpocket Reminder - Michael Rainville/Self Published (found on Ebay several years ago)

Want to be a Beekeeper this Year? You'd better get started NOW

Sydney Barton

Photo Courtesy of

Photo Courtesy of

It's January and you want to keep bees this "Summer". Well, don't wait until May to get started because you will be out of luck. Your beekeeping year begins now.

"Why so early? It's just past the New Year!" you say. There are several reasons why. If you live in the Northern United States your beekeeping window of opportunity closes pretty quickly by the middle of April.

That is when beekeepers who produce package bees for sale are most likely already sold out. They are located in the Southern states and California and are offering bees for sale now for delivery in April and May. A small number of beekeeping companies offer nucleus hives for sale but they can't be shipped and you may have to travel pretty far to go get them. They are usually ready for purchase in late May or early June.

That is why you should be using this time not just to find a source of honeybees but also to prepare yourself and your bee yard (and possibly your neighbors) for the coming beekeeping year. Here is what you need to do.

By a good beekeeping book or two and read them at least twice all the way through. The Winter before I began serious beekeeping I read one basic beekeeping book, 2 books on beekeeping history and a book about nectar and pollen source plants. That was in addition to the charming beekeeping story books that inspire a lot of people to keep bees. I got to them after I got hooked.

Figure out whether you even have a decent location to put your bees. A small backyard with a couple of kids and a dog or two is not a good location for a bee hive. You need to place your hive where the activities of people won't interfere with the flight pattern of the bees. Also, be considerate and ask your neighbor's permission first.

Use the time of cold weather to figure out what supplies and equipment you will need, order it and assemble it. Yes, unless you want to pay a lot more, it is wise to assemble your own bee hives. You will also learn more about the parts of a hive that way.

Take a class and/or join a beekeeping group. You will benefit greatly from the experience of others and will have someone to ask when you encounter a situation that confounds you, which will happen regularly.

Lastly, wrap your mind around the fact that you must now care for these insect animals with as much attention as you would give a family pet. These are living creatures and it is your job to make sure they stay healthy and happy. Trust me, they give back much more in enjoyment alone.

If You Want to Help the Honeybees....Plant a Tree

Sydney Barton

There are so many articles and comments on the internet about beekeeping and efforts to "save the honeybees". Some of these involve buying a product with the assurance that a portion of the proceeds will go to honeybee research. That's a good enough thing but I tend to see it as more of a marketing tool for the businesses that do it rather than as a serious source of much needed funds.

Another kind of article encourages well meaning homeowners and gardeners to plant "bee friendly" plants in their backyards. While this is an admirable and kind thing to do, it goes much further toward providing habitat and forage for native pollinators; a just as important and not much recognized area of concern.

Planting "bee friendly" plants in the backyard won't do that much to directly help the honeybees. It's because of the way they search out nectar sources, report back to the other bees in the hive and focus on the most abundant source that is blooming at any given time.

Because of their numbers, forty to eighty thousand bees in the Spring and Summer, they need to produce a lot of food. That's why a backyard garden is nothing for a honeybee to write home about.  Honeybees have evolved into very efficient foragers over the eons they have been on the Earth.  Flying from flower to flower, backyard to backyard is energy inefficient. It requires too much flying for the nectar collected.

Linden flowers Photo by Leslie Day 

Linden flowers Photo by Leslie Day 

This is where trees come in.  Nearly all kinds of trees produce flowers. Most of us don't see them, either because the flowers are not very prominent or because we just don't raise our heads up from the sidewalk or take a serious look out of the car window. Flowering trees are one of the most concentrated nectar sources available to honeybees. There are thousands of blooms on a mature tree.  When the bees find a blooming tree they will work that tree until every flower has been visited several times. The distance from flower to flower is minimal, providing maximum foraging efficiency.

So, if you want to help the honeybees, you know what to do.

Here is a Wikipedia  list of trees important for honeybees in the North of the U.S.

The above list left out one of the best tree types for nectar (and honey by the way) Linden trees also known as Basswood.

Yes Virginia, Beekeeping is Real Agriculture

Sydney Barton

Picture by Emyduck via Flickr, at our apiary.

Picture by Emyduck via Flickr, at our apiary.


We don't just turn on a faucet to fill our honey jars. There is a lot more to it than that. Not just the back breaking, sweaty physical work of maintaining beehives or the struggle to keep them healthy. Just like any farmer, beekeepers must always be aware of the weather. The unpredictable, uncontrollable weather.

The activity of a hive is guided by the weather. Bees go foraging for nectar and pollen on the warm sunny days of spring and summer. Beekeepers know that more of those foragers will stay in the hive on days that threaten rain. That's why we stay out of the hives then. More bees at home with nothing to do but defend the hive equals more potential for stings.

The weather can also throw off our best laid plans. Farmers can lose a crop to drought and so can beekeepers. The same conditions limit or eliminate available nectar and pollen sources so reduced nectar means less honey.

Cooler weather also has it's effect. No one from Chicago reading this has failed to notice the lateness of the tomato crop. A rainy and cooler June followed by the coolest July ever has also caused a dearth of honey. Here is the reason why.

Honeybees are extremely good at regulating the interior temperature of the hive. A constant 93 degrees is the optimum temperature for egg laying by the Queen and brood rearing by the workers. In the average Summer when the nights are very warm many bees will move outside to open up space for ventilating the hive and keep it from getting too hot. If you visit an apiary on a hot evening you will see “beards” of bees hanging out on the outside of the hive. During the even hotter days every bee that is of foraging age goes out to collect nectar. They aren't needed inside because the external and internal temperatures are very similar.

The opposite has happened this year. Cool mornings and evenings meant that more bees were needed inside to keep the temperature up during those times. Fewer foragers = less nectar = less honey. And our visions of buckets and buckets of extra honey faded.

I'll admit because we've never seen weather like this, it took us awhile to figure out exactly what the problem was. Now that we've figured it out, just like any other farmer, we have to hope the weather changes in our favor.

Sweet Summer Solstice Follow-up

Sydney Barton


Last week I had been checking the weather forecast for Friday the 19th every day. By Wednesday it started looking like we might be OK but when Friday rolled around, it looked like we would get rain. Since we didn't have a rain date, I was pretty sure the turnout would be low.

More people signed up in advance this year than ever before and although I don't have the actual attendance number, more people came out for the Solstice at the apiary than we have ever seen. We were very happy to see so many people take a chance on the weather to come out and support us.

And of course, it rained. And the wind blew. We had several canopies set up, weighted and strapped to each other and when they started to lift off the ground we all scrambled to clear off the tables and take them down. With 2 protected canopies left, and some space inside our storage container, a sizable crowd remained. Still eating and drinking and having a great time while they held on to the canopy struts, just in case. Did I mention everyone was soaked?

Before we knew it, the storm and rain cleared off. We could see the sun setting over the trees to the west. The wind was replaced with a cool slight breeze.

The potluck dishes were wonderful as was the Salmon from Plitt Seafood. The extra tables we set up were nearly full. The wine and Goose Island beer certainly helped keep everybody calm.

The only thing that didn't work out so well was the raffle. Plenty of people bought tickets but with all the excitement over the weather, we never got around to picking the winning numbers.

We'll do that this week and call the winners. I'll post the results when we do.