Chicago City Hall is abuzz, but the commotion isn’t caused by the politics inside. Nestled among the soaring roofs of Chicago’s Loop, two hives of Italian honeybees (Apis mellifera) thrive in the 20,000-square-foot garden on the City Hall roof. A result of Mayor Richard Daley’s urban agriculture initiatives, the bees debuted in 2003.
Daley planned the city’s rooftop garden after visiting Germany in 2000. In Europe, rooftop gardening and urban agriculture have been common since the Industrial Revolution, when people gravitated to the city, often bringing their apiary skills with them. Upon returning from Germany, Daley planned an American version of urban apiculture.
Stephanie Averill first met with the mayor in the winter of 2002 to discuss the installation of bees in the northwest corner of the City Hall Green Roof. Well-known for the apiary she maintains in her large city yard, Averill was hired to consult with Daley’s team. She and beekeeper Michael Thompson harvest rooftop honey twice annually and ensure that the hives are healthy.
Busy Little Bees
Being in the city actually offers several benefits to the bees. While Lake Michigan allows greater accessibility to water, it also helps create a micro-environment where the same types of trees and plants bloom at different times in different sections across Chicago. This variance allows the bees to attain more nectar, and it affords a growing time of three weeks longer than outside the city. “They can get a lot of work done in those extra three weeks,” Averill says.
Another factor that bolsters the bees’ productivity is the many people planting flower boxes and gardens in the city. The diversity of plant life in a compact area supports a larger range of nectar sources.
The bees pollinate a 5-mile radius around City Hall. Although Lake Michigan truncates their eastern boundary, the bees don’t seem to mind. Averill has noticed them making a literal beeline from their hives toward a favorite place along the lake — the mints in the gardens of Millennium Park. “They love mint,” Averill says, “because it produces a lot of nectar.”
By planting high-nectar sources, gardeners can attract bees that will pollinate fruits, flowers, vegetables and herbs. Chicago’s commissioner of the environment, Sadhu Johnston, urges gardeners to consider plants that attract desirable wildlife. The City Hall rooftop garden planners’ choice of flowers, trees and other plants also draws butterflies, dragonflies and crickets, as well as other bees. The City Hall bees especially love the bee balm, also known as wild bergamot (Monarda spp.), that is planted in the rooftop garden.
Perhaps the richest source of nectar in the world is clover. With a history as a prairie settlement and “cowtown,” Chicago has an abundance of clover, which farmers grew to sustain livestock. The three clover varieties the City Hall bees find are sweet white (Melilotus albus), red (Trifolium pratense) and yellow (Trifolium aureum).
Some other high-nectar sources are marjoram (Origanum majorana), oregano (Origanum vulgare), dianthus (Dianthus spp.), horehound (Marrubium vulgare), alfalfa (Medicago sativa), mosquito plant (Agastache cana), borage (Borago officinalis), English thyme (Thymus vulgaris), lemon mint (Monarda citriodora), catnip (Nepeta cataria), scorpion weeds (Phacelia spp.), chives (Allium schoenoprasum), mullein (Verbascum thapsus), winter savory (Satureja montana) and hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis).
An apiarist since the age of 12, Thompson’s honey palette is finely tuned. He explained how the City Hall bees produce two different types of honey, each with a distinct flavor and color. Honey produced from nectar foraged in the spring and summer months is very light and pale yellow-green in color. Thompson and Averill both say its flavor is in the top 10 percent of all the honeys they have ever tasted.
Lighter honey is more desirable on the worldwide market, and Thompson attributes high amounts of sweet white clover to the quality of the spring/summer batch. White aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides) and goldenrod (Solidago spp.) are the major nectar sources in the fall in Chicago. Their nectar produces honey that is “dark amber, richer and more complex,” Thompson says. He suggests it is better suited to cooking.
Honey for a Cause
Thompson and his crew collect approximately 200 pounds of honey per hive annually, which equates to roughly 1,300 two-ounce jars. The group collects twice — in early September and in October — and harvesting is accomplished in the culinary center of Gallery 37 Center for the Arts, a city venue for youth programs. Each jar of honey sells for $2 (proceeds benefit Chicago Cultural Center projects), and sales are limited to two jars per customer. Each jar is decorated with a label designed by former Gallery 37 apprentice artist Fernando Ramirez.
Due to the success of the City Hall bee project, plans are underway to add a hive on top of the Chicago Cultural Center in summer 2007.
Veronica Hinke is a Chicago free lance journalist who has appreciated nature and herbs since childhood. She writes for The New York Post, Chicago Tribune’s Red Eye and Chicagoland Gardening Magazine.