The bee’s knees

“When you flip a bee over with your finger and it doesn’t try to fly, that’s how you know it’s dying,” explained 80-year-old beekeeper Edie McDonald. Barely over five-feet tall with two large gold bee brooches pinned to her sweater vest, Edie is a beekeeping aficionado. After learning the trade under her father’s wing in Ohio, she now runs beekeeping classes in the historic Pullman neighborhood. This past Saturday, Edie and a swarm of assistants traveled to Hyde Park to impart a few words of wisdom to a nascent group of beekeepers at the latest rendition of the Op Shop on 53rd and Ellis.

So, can you keep bees in a city like Chicago? Edie’s answer, echoed by her protégé, Jill, is an emphatic yes, you most certainly can. In fact, according to Jill, cities are great places to keep bees because of the abundant plant life and easy access to sunlight. And, they point out, starting a colony is easier than one might expect–hives are available at most hardware stores, and many apiaries will deliver packaged bees to fill them…Edie and Jill walk their buzzing audience through the rest of the process: dump the package’s contents (which include the queen bee) into a two-by-two foot square wooden hive, place the hive in sunlight, away from foot traffic but nestled near to flowers, and fill a bowl of water with some small stones or wine corks for the bees to sit on while they drink…The bees do the rest of the work, flying up to six miles to gather nectar at an insane 1200 beats per minute, tending to any openings in the hive with their own version of sealing wax, and of course, producing lots and lots of honey. They also secrete a special food called royal jelly, which they feed to the few, select larvae they hope will one day become queens.

While there was no free honey or actual bees for that matter on Saturday (transporting them is a timely and frequently painful endeavor), Edie and her assistants offered lots of useful advice for potential beekeepers. Attendees were open about their own beekeeping adventures, trading tips about how to find the best spots to keep hives and swapping jars of fresh, raw honey with fretful neighbors. Beekeeping is a homey business. “We treat our bees like our babies,” Jill admitted, laughing heartily.