Look how desire has changed in you,
how light and colorless it is,
with the world growing new marvels
because of your changing.
Your soul has become an invisible bee.
We don't see it working,
but there's the full honeycomb.
Hello all. My name is Ed Vlcek, and I am going to tell you about my experiences of beekeeping. I am a transfer student from Harold Washington College, entering my second year at Shimer. It may seem a bit unusual for a Shimerian to choose to learn the fine art of beekeeping, but I have for years had a fascination with agriculture and the bugs that make it happen. I chose to intern as an urban beekeeper as a way to explore how we can alter the content of our daily lives, practically, in immediate (and often delicious) ways. Bees are in many ways at the forefront of the shift toward more sustainable, urban-based food. In learning how they live and work, I hope to learn how to live and work in new ways as well. The Catholic Worker Peter Maurin said that "the scholars must become workers so the workers may be scholars." Maybe that's my guiding principle this summer. Anyways, I hope you enjoy.
I started the first day of my internship with the Chicago Honey Co-op, a cooperative urban beekeeping endeavor with hives all over Chicago, by going to the thrift store. My mentor told me earlier in the week that I needed to wear light colored clothing (which he later explained had to do with the fact that throughout the evolutionary life of bees they have been attacked by animals with dark colored clothing), but I realized that I, in fact, did not have any. I searched the aisles endlessly, but couldn't figure out what to do - should I get a long-sleeved white shirt, or a brown coat? Cotton or polyester? Unable to make the decision, I got a blue raincoat I had been meaning to get anyways, and walked away without a single piece of light colored clothing. In the end I went in the gray brown flannel I was already wearing. Maybe it was mildly offensive to the bees, but they were not immediately compelled to sting me, and it covered my arms pretty well.
I proceeded to ride my bike down to 45th and Racine, to the Stockyards Industrial Corridor in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, where the Co-op's new main site is located. They sit on the back 2 acres of Testa Produce's property, a L.E.E.D. certified produce distributor with an open attitude toward beekeeping. With Testa's massive wind turbine circling overhead and Chicago's skyline in the distance, my mentor Michael showed me the hives. Numbering around thirty total (comprising about half of the Co-op's population), the bees live in the southeast corner of a wonderful field in what is otherwise a smelly industrial wasteland. The field is covered with white sweet clover, as well as some yellow clover, which, by total chance, happen to be renowned bee crops. Wildflowers line the southern fence; bunnies and cowbirds frolic and dodge massive chunks of rusty metal; and thistle, prairie parsley, and numerous other natives grow in this accidental nature preserve.
The hives themselves are constructed out of separable wooden boxes in which you can hang the frames that support the honeycomb. This model is by far the most common around the world today, first introduced by Lorenzo Langstroth in the 19th century. Some of the hives have plastic or wax foundations for the bees to build the comb from, rather than building it up themselves. These plastic pieces are a source of some controversy, I was told, and so I inquired as to what the controversy revolved around. I asked, “Is it a fear that the plastic will leach into the honey?” The response I received set the mood for the rest of the day, and I hope it gives some insight into how things have been going for the past few weeks. “No, it's that it doesn't vibrate with the world,” Michael told me. Everything resonates, and vibrates, and moves around, but some things are more rigid than others, like plastic compared to the beeswax. We continued on this topic, discussing whether plastic resonates with the natural world, or with the bee's being in the world.
We find ourselves, at the hive, at a fascinating interface between the human creative process and nature's processes, as well as the poetic and the scientific. We have lived with bees for so long, and we have perhaps begun to think that we know what they need, and what is best for them. But as they provide us with the gift of honey, we forget that the bee is not a machine that can be fixed or broken – they are living like us, only in a very different way. Something about being with them makes one reflect on these things. Maybe it is the hardly audible humming, or their peaceful nature, or maybe it's the hot sun, but every day I spend with the bees I feel a little more centered. My guide is in some ways the same as them – he has something of a bee nature, and his way of approaching the world easily rubs off.
As we started the actual work for the day Michael informed me that a great friend just a few blocks away had called him about a swarm. The honeybee typically swarms in the spring when new brood (bee babies) is being laid. When a new queen has hatched out and challenged the authority of the old queen, the old queen leaves, and over half the hive can and often does go along with her. They will follow her wherever she goes, and this time she decided to land on a tree. Fascinatingly, the queen bee and the worker bee are genetically identical. It is only because of the 'royal jelly' the worker bees feed her in her development that she becomes a queen.
To clarify, all worker bees are sexually immature females. The queen is a mated, mature female, and the 'drone' bees are males, whose only function is to fertilize the queen. All hive and child care, including food forage, repairs, and everything else barring actual reproduction, is done by the female workers. The queen can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day, most of which are workers, who live for about 3 and a half weeks. The hive is constantly reconstituting itself, and so the swarm is a natural expanding function – a way to create more hives from a healthy queen. Some Biodynamic beekeepers suggest that swarming is so fundamental to bee life that it should be allowed to happen, but this is not a common practice. Most beekeepers are very careful to destroy queen cells before they develop larvae, and thus limit the chance of swarming.
So, excited to go on a field trip almost right away on my first day, I headed with Michael down to meet a member of the group “Growing Home” at their site on the property of the Catholic Worker House “Su Casa” on 51sr Street. We got out a ladder, suited up in veils and gloves, and Michael climbed up and snipped the branch off. Slowly he descended and placed the swarm in hive box we had set atop a wheelbarrow nearby. When bees swarm, he explained, they are very gentle. Their bellies are full of honey, and they have no territory to defend. Everyone crowded around was feeling calmer from this explanation, and they were further relieved by our not wearing any veils to transport the box. They really were feeling gentle, and so it made all of us gentler too.
It seemed best to let the bees relax for a minute before heading back to Testa. As we waited, we talked with the folks working at the Worker House, and especially the people running Growing Home's agricultural job training program there. They are wonderful and visionary people, doing very hard and purposeful work. I can't wait to get down there again and see if the bees are settled down.
After some more talking and wandering around Su Casa's backyard, we headed back to finish the day of tending to the hives, reveling in the light of those wonderful people and the bustling, energetic plot they were tending.
I highly recommend anyone who is interested in bees to watch the documentary "The Queen of the Sun."
See you next time!