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To Bee or Not to Bee

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Tags: bees, honeybees, winter, spring, honey, pollinator, pollinators, beekeepers

Created: 3/6/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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We had a mini moment of truth up on the roof this past week -- we took a look into our honey bee hives to see if by chance, some had survived the winter so far. Honestly, there was not much hope. With beekeepers around the country reporting major losses it seemed too much to hope that any of our hives had made it through one of the harshest Chicago winters on record. 

Honey from the Hive

Last fall we made the decision to leave all the honey in the hive for our bees, taking none for our traditional honey sale in the museum gift shop. You can buy a little taste of the previous seasons labors in a jar from our gift store. The jars are small, just enough to taste how special our roof top bees are, and not so much that we did not leave them what they need to get through that year, or so we thought. 

Truthfully, even in the best of years it seems a bit rude and even a little crazy to take honey. Open up a box of bees and take some of their most precious resource, without getting stung…too may times.  We spend the whole summer watching and waiting for this other moment of truth.  How strong is the hive? How much were they able to produce and store? Can they spare some for their caretakers and fans?

It’s not a new story. People in cultures around the world have been after honey for centuries. There is evidence of humans harvesting honey in cave paintings. Only bees can make it, with their remarkable nectar gathering skills, specialized honey stomach, and a work force to rival whole cities. 

The manner in which bees are kept, and the ease with which we are able to take a little of the extra honey, has made some real strides over the years. It used to be that you had to completely kill a colony in order to harvest that honey. Now with the use of moveable frames we simply take a few out, process them for honey and return them with much of the comb still in tact.

Harvesting honey
Harvesting excess honey in a banner year.

The previous year it was a hard winter for many of the honey bees in the area and the ones on the roof of the museum were no exception. Like many of the local beekeepers we were sad to see that despite our efforts, few of our bees made it through the winter in 2012/2013.

We started fresh this past spring with new colonies. With the help of our local beekeeper Anne, we installed them in June and were happy to see them get as busy as, well, bees. They could be seen around the grounds buzzing around flowers and collecting nectar in the various habit recreations featuring native plantings throughout the growing season. 

Supplementing hives with sugar water
Supplementing the hives with sugar water.

So without taking any of the fruits of their labor, we tucked our bees in for the winter of 2013/14.  We added a little extra nutrition to tide them over and some insulation so it would be less drafty. We hoped for a strong start in the spring.

Hope Springs

Rooftop hives with snowmelt
A good sign of live bee activity. Snow melt around the hive.

The good news so far is that when we looked into our hives we found 10 out of 12 with activity. Some look stronger than others and there is still a long way to go until we can say they’re going to make it into the full growing season, but this is far more then we dared hope for.  

Working with bees
Working quick to minimize cold exposure

We keep hoping for better years for the honey bees and their relatives the native bees. These species are important in helping to provide the pollination that gives us many of our favorite summer flowers and fruits. It’s hard to over estimate the importance of these services in both the natural world and in the cultivated crops we rely on for much of our diet. For now we’ll take this small victory.

Karen Kramer Wilson, Living Invertebrate Specialist

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