Beekeepers in Pilsen produce both honey, environmental awareness
August 7, 2010

By Lawrence McCallum

Although beekeeping largely is associated with farms and rural apiaries in warm, exotic locations, the number of urban beekeepers is growing. Besides producing delicious honeys both for sale and personal use, they help keep the world greener.

Pilsen resident Donna Oppolo has raised bees for five years and even started her own club — the Pilsen Beekeepers Association.

“Many people are interested,” Oppolo said. “We have four or five beekeepers as members, but there are as many as 30 people attending. Some people have called and asked for help and advice about equipment.”

Oppolo studied master gardening at the University of Illinois Extension Program. There, she met beekeeper Edith McDonald. Although beekeeping had not been Oppolo’s main focus, she started raising bees in 2005. “You sell honey to people in the neighborhood,” Oppolo explained.

“It’s a small-scale business at the moment, but we hope to establish more locations and more colonies.

“Currently, there are four colonies in Pilsen. Two of them are located in backyards, one is on the rooftop of Simone’s nightclub and eatery at 18th and Carpenter Streets, and the fourth is at the Growing Station Community Garden on 21st and Sangamon Streets. These colonies produced 340 pounds of honey last year.”

Last winter was hard on the bees, and many died. The rooftop colony at Simone’s did better because that is a warmer location.

Despite these losses, Oppolo continues as a proponent of urban bee colonies. “There is a much wider variety of nectar and pollen in the city,” she noted. “There are hardier plants. Honey is more substantial and has a different taste. Most grocery store honey is pasteurized and often very bland. The enzymes and nutrients are largely destroyed.”

Oppolo and her friends are making fliers and planning special events to promote their activities. The group meets monthly at the former Pilsen Café on 21st and Halsted Streets. Mark Birbeck, who once operated the café, provided the location when he learned about the group.

“I’ve been raising bees myself down in Kankakee County,” Birbeck said. “The colony is at a farm, and nurturing the hive is a fascinating pastime.”

The Pilsen Beekeepers Association actually is an extension of the Kankakee River Valley Beekeepers Association. One member of the latter group, John Bailey, attends the Pilsen meetings.

“Beekeeping is something I’ve done for 37 years,” Bailey said. “I have a lot of experience in this field and try to help them with some instruction and useful information.”

Beyond a seasoned veteran like Bailey, the Pilsen group counts many newcomers. Aspiring beekeeper Esmirna Garcia is excited by the possibilities of life with bees, and she and her husband have plans for a colony of their own.

“We’re building a rooftop deck for a garden and will introduce a hive,” Garcia said. “Starting a hive is like keeping a pet that actually keeps you. The bees aggressively follow their own pattern and you try to manipulate them. There is much to learn, and I’m getting accustomed to some basic procedures. When working with the bees, you need to wear a veil and use a smoker to calm the bees down.”

Like other novices, Garcia is learning the proper verbiage and use of instruments that pertain to her new field. An apiary, for example, is any location where bees are kept, while a hive is the container for the colony. Beyond the proper precautions of the veil and smoker, she also is mastering the use of the extractor to remove honey from the frames. She is surprised by the high level of social organization within the colony.

“The bees have various functions and effectively cooperate with one another,” Garcia said. “They work diligently at their tasks, whether it is cleaning, gathering pollen, or protecting the hive. Their energy and level of productivity are amazing.”

Similarly, the new beekeepers are developing a collective consciousness, openly examining their strong points and weaknesses in maintaining the colonies and working together to improve the efforts of all.

“Many of the people in the group have developed a strong interest in gardening,” Oppolo said. “We are helping to keep the world green in our own small ways.”

The Pilsen Beekeepers Association has been expanding slowly by word of mouth. More colonies soon will be established in Pilsen, and the urban beekeepers, despite humble beginnings, might play a major role in the greening of Chicago.

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