Pedaling Honey

Jana Kinsman bursts through the door of Logan Square’s Café Mustache panting a little. She takes off her helmet and gloves, orders a bagel, and sits down. The weather outside is unseasonably warm, and while most Chicagoans would be pleased about the break from winter, for a biker it mostly means inconvenient last-minute adjustments to outerwear. Kinsman takes a moment to de-layer and decompress before delving into her history with bikes.

“I’m a year-round biker,” she explains, without the kind of smugness that one might expect from an athlete who regularly braves subzero wind chill temperatures and icy pavement on two wheels. Kinsman’s three road bikes regularly take her from her home in Logan Square to the farthest reaches of the city and back. Once her new project gets off the ground, however, her bikes will become much more than a mode of transit.

Bike-a-Bee is Kinsman’s plan to merge her age-old passion for biking with her newfound love of bees and beekeeping. With money raised through a Kickstarter campaign, she plans on installing ten new beehives in community spaces across the city. A bike cargo trailer, also purchased with the Kickstarter money, will help Kinsman haul beekeeping tools to the hives.

“I’ll almost never need a car,” she beams.

Kinsman first took to beekeeping last February  after enrolling in an introductory apiculture course at the Chicago Honey Co-op in North Lawndale. Her second brush with the hobby came last summer when she began an apprenticeship with beekeeper Philip Smith at the Blessed Bee Apiary in Eugene, Oregon.

Smith kept thirteen hives at sites across Eugene, ranging from community gardens to elementary schools to wild blueberry patches. Every morning, Kinsman hopped into Smith’s pickup and hit the hive circuit, checking each hive’s health, watching for swarms, and of course, collecting honey. From the experience, Kinsman not only gained a better understanding of apiculture, but of human culture as well.

“Children don’t know the difference between a honey bee and a wasp,” she laments. “People don’t understand the honeybee’s role in the environment. Bees get a bad rap. People think they sting more than they do.” As Kinsman learned in Eugene, simply bringing bees into the community is enough to dispel these myths.

It doesn’t take much to maintain a hive. The space needed is minimal, and with the bikes, Kinsman estimates that she could keep up with hive maintenance spending only a few hours each week in transit.

When she first got back to Chicago, Kinsman didn’t have enough capital to purchase her own hive. Luckily, the Chicago Honey Co-op put her in touch with Eden Place Nature Center, a community garden in Fuller Park that was looking for somebody to maintain their hives after a previous beekeeper had left town.

After just a few weeks, inspired by the success of her two hives at Eden Place, Kinsman has decided that it’s time to get things going with Bike-A-Bee.

“I just got tired of talking about things and I thought, let’s just do it!” she says.

Community support for the project has been promising.  Though putting her hives in larger community gardens involved too much red tape, smaller community gardens and urban agricultural spaces have been eager to host Kinsman’s hives. Where Kinsman sees space, they see free pollination, honey, and an exciting attraction for neighbors. Kinsman believes that bees in community gardens are the next step in urban agriculture. If the response to Kinsman’s plan means anything, then it seems that others agree.

Financial support has also been pouring in.  The Bike-A-Bee Kickstarter listed an initial fundraising goal of $7,000 for hives and a bike trailer, but at the close of the campaign on February 7, the till checked out at over $8,400.

With the extra money, Kinsman plans to invest in some child-sized bee suits, and eventually launch a community education program. For now, though, she is focusing on the more immediate task of getting the project off the ground. By March, she hopes to have the hives assembled, painted, and delivered. In April, the bees will be delivered. If all goes well, by the end of the summer the combs will be laden with ambrosia, though Kinsman realizes that this could take up to a year. But she’s willing to wait.

“I’m not moving.  I love Chicago.”  she reassures.

Though she plans on selling the honey, and perhaps some beeswax beauty products, Bike-A-Bee’s aim is not profit. Any money the project will make will go back into maintaining the hives. For Kinsman, bees are not a business, they’re companions.

“Why bees?” she jokes. “Why get a dog?”

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