Here & There: Beekeeping on a Chicago Rooftop Garden

| December/January 2007

  • The hives atop Chicago's city hall produce roughly 200 pounds of honey annually.

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.”

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