Native bees say, ‘don’t forget about me!’

Pedro Ortiz, an urban beekeeper, extracting his bees from the hive “supers” (drawers) to check for honey on Aug. 15. His garden is located at 6632 N. Glenwood Ave.

On a typically quiet summer night, a small group of people gathered at the Logan Square Public Library to buzz about an interest they all shared. Not books, not art—but bees. A big black-and-white drawing of a bee hanging on the meeting room door greeted old and new friends.

The Chicago Beekeeping Meetup Group gathers once a month, bringing novice and experienced urban beekeepers together to discuss beekeeping, its challenges and declining bee populations. The group supports all kinds of beekeepers, including novices wanting to learn how to safely keep bees and produce honey.

The meeting’s attention was on beekeeper Pedro Ortiz as he shared news of his latest honey harvest and made newcomers feel welcome.

The Rogers Park resident’s three Italian honeybee hives live in his colorful garden with blackberries, raspberries and wildflowers, perfect for Chicago’s urban agriculture scene.

“It’s not just [having] bees,” Ortiz said. “It is to be able to have the time to sit in front of a hive and see how they interact and how they work in harmony. [They are] basically the only society that works in harmony. Every piece is exactly the way it is supposed to fit. If one part doesn’t fit, the whole thing collapses.”

Ortiz is one of a number of urban beekeepers in Chicago who produce honey in their own backyards. Others keep bees on rooftops and sell their honey at farmer’s markets or share it with friends. 

Beekeeping is also a way to foster community in a city full of strangers. Ortiz and his wife now have a new circle of friends, including those from the beekeeping meetup and neighbors interested in seeing their hives. 

More than 20,000 winged workers swarm around Ortiz and his wife’s backyard—pollinating the garden and providing him with more than 50 pounds of honey a month. The pollination enables Ortiz to grow blackberries, raspberries and figs. Coneflowers, rosemary, sunflowers and lavender also fill the air with sweet aromas.

Urban beekeeping may sound dangerous to outsiders, but Ortiz thinks it is a gift from Mother Nature and is not intimidated. Dressed in light blues with a screened hat to protect his head and shoulders, Ortiz checks each hive’s “super”—vertical drawers where the bees store their honey—every week. The smoker—a small metal, teapot-looking smoke machine—helps to calm the buzzing bees when beekeepers enter their hives. A large brush is used to gently brush the bees away from the supers, so the amount of honey can be seen.

Once all the supers are checked and the honey is collected, the trick is to put the supers back gently without squashing any bees in the process. Carefully brushing the bees and talking to them helps, Ortiz said.

This hobby has a ballooning presence in Chicago’s urban agriculture, according to Michael Thompson, farm manager and director of the Chicago Honey Co-op. The Co-op is a registered agricultural cooperative that harvests honey and produce and supports sustainable agriculture.

A longtime beekeeper and farmer, Thompson started beekeeping as a child in Kansas and resumed once he relocated to Chicago in 1974. He remembers finding only two other beekeepers in the city then, but now, he can easily name 50.

While the number of beekeepers is growing, bee populations are declining, Thompson said. He said most people will only think of honeybees, but there are several other wild pollinators, including bumblebees and wild butterflies, that are vital to crops but are dwindling.

“Those native bees are really threatened much worse than honeybees because their culture is very localized,” he said. “Those are really essential to our world, and people don’t understand they’re even here.”

According to a 2015 study on U.S. native bee trends conducted by the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont in Burlington, the number of native bees declined between 2008 and 2013, particularly in cornfield and grassland environments. The study also found that between 2008 and 2013, bee abundance declined across 23 percent of the U.S.

Although this decline is visible among crops and wild habitats, the abundance of local native flowers in urban agriculture gardens helps native bees thrive, according to Sam Vergara, the farm coordinator for the North Lawndale farm. The farm, 3555 W. Ogden Ave., is part of Windy City Harvest, an urban farming collective managed by Chicago Botanic Gardens. Windy City Harvest has six farms in Chicago and distributes produce to cafes, farmers markets and South Side grocery stores.

“[North Lawndale farms] see a multitude of different local pollinators, [and] we are home to a lot of native bees,” Vergara said.

The farm, just off the Central Park Pink Line stop in North Lawndale, is a quiet escape from the city and a perfect example of a sustainable environment in an urban landscape. With 32 raised beds and 22 different crops, the farm is home to carpenter bees, mason bees and miner bees, in addition to honeybees. The farm added two hives to its family this season, and Vergara said the combination of honeybees and native bees yielded larger crops this year, especially the single harvest of 230 cucumbers.

“We heavily rely on a lot of local pollinators and a lot of beneficial plants on the border [of the farm] to make sure we are making a habitat for our native pollinators,” he said.

The decline of native bees is occurring more frequently as climate change and pesticides affect the natural habitats of native bees, like ground nesting species, according to Hillary Sardiñas, the Pacific Coast pollinator specialist at Xerces Society—an international organization protecting wildlife through the conservation of animals and their habitats. Sardiñas said ground nesting bees make up 70–80 percent of native bees.

“Those bees need compacted soil, bare open grounds, and, in urban areas, those tend to get invaded by weeds or mulched over, so that creates this missing resource,” Sardiñas said.

She noted that the major difference between native bees and honeybees is they do not offer the same amount of cross-pollination, which can affect the growth of crops. While honeybees are usually looking for nectar or pollen only, Sardiñas said native bees, like bumblebees and carpenter bees, cross-pollinate with other native bee species, creating more marketable healthier crops.

The Xerces Society’s Endangered Species Program works with species at the highest risk, such as bumblebees and butterflies, to raise awareness of the population decline and protect the species before it is too late.

“Bumblebees, while being some of the most important pollinators, are the ones that are most in peril,” Sardiñas said.

She explained that the Franklin bumblebee species, common at the California and Oregon border, is believed to be extinct because it has not been seen since 2006. She noted that the Western bumblebee, native to the Midwest region, might soon be extinct as well.

Chicago beekeeper Nancy Gidwitz, who keeps hives on her rooftop at North Avenue and Halsted Street, said she decided to start keeping bees five years ago to increase her fruit tree yield by pollinating the trees. She said while her efforts were successful, especially with apple trees, the work is challenging.

“The tricky thing—no matter where you are—is the survivability of bees,” she said, adding that only one of her bee colonies has survived through the winter since she became a beekeeper.

Bees enjoy a wide diversity of plants that flourish in urban climates, making bees stronger and able to create more honey. This benefit of urban beekeeping is called nectar forage, Thompson said.

“It was a revelation to realize that, early in my life, I didn’t have to live in the country to satisfy my dreams—I could do

it right here,” Thompson said. “It’s sunny, and there are rains here. I just have to build my soil, and I’ll be fine.”

Thompson, who worked as an urban landscaper for 22 years before turning his focus to organic produce, said bees are superb at adapting to diverse climates, in part because they have been doing so for millions of years.

“Honeybees are incredibly resilient animals,” Thompson said. “We constantly are amazed by that.”

Despite steady declines of honeybees and native bees, in part because of climate change and unpredictable weather, conservation groups like Xerces and urban growers like Thompson, Ortiz and The Chicago Beekeeping Meetup Group are doing their part to help the bee population thrive. For instance, Ortiz—who is originally from South America—wants to teach beekeeping in Spanish and attract a larger audience to help raise awareness and re-engage people in the practice.

Naaman Gambill, head beekeeper and managing partner at Westside Bee Boyz and co-owner of The Hive, Chicago’s beekeeping supply store, said it is important to recognize that bees do not need saving; rather, bees need support from beekeepers or urban farmers. He said he has seen evidence of this as people plant forage for bees and support local honey production at farmer’s markets.

“There’s more public awareness than ever before about the importance of honeybees, and here in Chicago, it’s an attribute of the Midwest,” Gambill said. “Here, where the predominant population is familiar with Midwestern values, we have a closer tie to agriculture than most areas and most metropolises.”