DOWNERS GROVE – Honey bee populations are in crisis worldwide, but a growing apiary managed by the park district at Lyman Woods is thriving and producing hundreds of pounds of honey.
The Downers Grove Park District built its own hives in 2013, beginning with a set of five colonies, which have since grown to eight under the management of naturalist Marge Trocki, who also keeps bees in several other locations.
"It's a challenging hobby," Trocki said. "And that to me makes it enjoyable. You have to make decisions and think like a bee. And you get all this wonderful honey and wax and product from the hives."
In July, Trocki and staff harvested almost 400 pounds of honey from the colonies, and are planning another harvest in September. The honey is for sale to the public, at $9 for a pound and $6 for 8 ounces. As of Aug. 6, more than half of the stock had already sold.
Each colony consists of a single stack of wooden boxes filled with trays, swarmed with bees. A small, circular entrance on the bottom box is the insects' only means of coming or going. The queen and her brood live in lower levels, and as the colony grows, Trocki stacks another box on top to give more room.
Managing space is key – too much and pests or disease can take root – not enough, and the bees will ditch the hive and and find a nice hole in a tree.
The honey is largely concentrated to the top box, from which Trocki can remove the frames and collect the sweet nectar. During a demonstration, the bees were calm, going about their various tasks and otherwise ignoring their human visitors.
Beyond just honey, bees serve an important ecological purpose in the park as well, traveling as far as three miles from the apiary to pollinate flowers and other plants, Trocki said, of which Lyman Woods is diverse and rich.
"We have a little vegetable garden," she said. "It's doing well partly because of the honey bees."
The types of flowers and trees foraged by the bees influences the honey's color and taste, which changes by the season.
"Our fist harvest in July is a lot lighter color than the fall harvest, due to the different types of flowers" she said. "It's more bold later in the year. But it's not always the case. You go across the country and get different colors and get opposite tastes."
The bees are also used for a variety of educational classes and projects. The wax, for instance, scraped from the frames to reveal the honey during harvest, was then used by children at the Interpretive Center this summer to make candles.
Trocki has been keeping bees herself for about seven years, her home colonies at one point reached three dozen in number, but she said she's since paired it back to about 20.
"What I enjoy most about bee keeping is to actually go out and be with all these flying insects," she said. "You get into the zone and it's peaceful to me, and it's relaxing. I know it doesn't sound like it would be."
Her enthusiasm and the new apiary motivated Lyman Woods Manager of Natural Resources and Interpretive Services Shannon Forsythe to begin beekeeping at home this year for the first time.
"I studied ecology," she said. "I guess learning about social insects and their systems is pretty fascinating. They have some interesting behaviors, and how the colony works together is pretty fascinating. And the honey doesn't hurt, either."
The honey harvested by the park district is strained, but otherwise requires no pasteurizing or other processing.
"With grocery store honey, you have to be careful with because you you never know what it is," Forsythe said. "Of course as for all of the food we eat, we should be trying to go for the most natural, simple and close-to-home food, so we know what we're eating.
BEE KEEPING HISTORY
In 1894, an August issue of the American Bee Journal describes a visit to the farm owned by Walter C. Lyman – part of which now forms the Lyman Woods Nature Preserve, Park District Spokesman Ian Everett said. Lyman began beekeeping around 1882 “by a stray swarm located on one of their trees," according to the journal. His first crop of honey was 75 pounds, and by 1894 he was producing thousands of pounds each season from 70 colonies of bees. Most recently a volunteer ran a small apiary, which was then temporarily continued by Trocki until the Park District built the current colonies, thanks to a donation from the Pierce Downer Heritage Alliance.