As the sun sets, urban beekeeper Jana Kinsman looks over her hives in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. With bees buzzing and the sky turning pink and purple, Kinsman looks up and says: “It doesn’t get much better than this.”
In Chicago, Kinsman runs the Bike a Bee project which maintains more than 50 hives on the South Side in community gardens, schools, and urban farms. She inspects bees and harvests honey weekly (which is sold at farmers markets and stores). And, she does so entirely by bike.
Bike a Bee has hives all over the South Side and a workspace in The Plant, a small business food incubator in a former meatpacking warehouse in Back of the Yards. It’s where Kinsman extracts and packages the honey. All the tenants, which include kombucha brewers and vegetable farmers, are focused on building a circular economy by reducing waste and reusing materials.
“We all collaborate and help each other out when we can. I know everyone by name. We’re all here because we want to be here. People who come are interested in doing actual good in the world. There’s really no other place like it,” said Kinsman.
How it all started
Seven years ago, before biking across the city with gallons of honey, Kinsman wanted a change from her career in graphic design. She decided to attend a winter beekeeping class held by Chicago Honey Co-Op exploring a life-long curiosity.
“I’ve always been interested in insects ever since I was little,” she said. “I have always been super fascinated by bees. I wanted to be involved with urban agriculture so beekeeping fit right in with exactly what I wanted to do.”
After attending that class, she traveled to Eugene, Oregon to become an apprentice at an apiary, where she learned hands-on beekeeping skills to bring back to Chicago. When she returned, she started a Kickstarter campaign that raised $8,000. It was enough to make Bike a Bee happen.
“I started Bike a Bee out of my apartment. All the equipment was stored in my bedroom and we extracted honey in my living room.”
A commitment to biking
Kinsman doesn’t believe a car is necessary for her work, even with hives spread out across Chatham, Woodlawn, Englewood, Auburn-Gresham, Pilsen, Back of the Yards, McKinley Park, and Hyde Park.
Bike a Bee does everything on bikes. Trips from hive to hive involve hauling heavy equipment and gallons of honey (the loads can get up to 300 pounds). Although it’s hard work, Kinsman prefers her bike, a 1974 Peugeot PX-10, because it gives her freedom.
“That was all I had. I wanted to prove that you could do anything by bike,” she said. Kinsman uses biking as her primary transportation and is deeply committed, once even moving her mattress by bike.
It’s incredibly rewarding for Kinsman. Biking about 12 miles every day is a good way to stay active, but be more mindful and enjoy the community around her, she said.
“When you’re on your bike, you’re slower. You’re able to take in things more. Stop whenever you want, wherever you want. You can see nature more, see the blooms in the trees. You connect much more with the world around you by bike.”
Beekeeping and hives on the South Side
Beekeepers in Chicago have a sense of fellowship. The Chicago Honey Co-Op and The Hive introduced Kinsman to the trade, and now, she’s part of that community. Everyone shares resources and advice, plus there is zero competition, she said.
“We all have to help one another,” she said. “Everyone here who chooses to be a farmer, who chooses to grow food, they have a genuine desire to put in the hard work and make something good happen.”
Because of the close community, and since Kinsman grew up on the South Side, it just made the most sense to start her business there.
“Beekeeping is more suited to the South Side. There’s more open space, more room for nature. Everyone just helps one another. The South Side fits in with who I became, and it’s just where I want to be.”
Creating some buzz
Kinsman makes sure her hives are accessible and seen by the public. A big part of her mission at Bike a Bee is to help people understand how bees enrich neighborhoods and how the insects are a vital part of nature
“They hives can really go anywhere, but I am very fortunate that a lot of community groups come to me asking to host a hive,” she said. “Most important: Is it public? Is it going to be around people? It’s important that people see bees.”
A decade ago, people didn’t really like bees, said Kinsman. But with campaigns like Greenpeace’s Save the Bees and awareness from local beekeepers, that’s changed.
Since the ’90s, there’s been a sharp decline in the honeybee population (partly because of harmful pesticides), which is detrimental because they are essential to farmers. Honeybees do the majority of pollination and one colony can pollinate 300 million flowers in one day.
So teaching residents about bees is crucial. Bike a Bee offers educational programs and will visit schools to talk about the natural species of bees that live in Chicago.
If you want to help, the good news is you don’t have become a beekeeper. The best thing to do is to plant anything—flowers, herbs, vegetable gardens, Kinsman said. Those nectar resources are beneficial to honeybees but also carpenter bees and solitary bees, too.