The sweet buzz in Highland Park

September 27, 2010

Text and photos by Ted Regencia

HIGHLAND PARK, Ill — It was a scene straight from a science fiction movie: Men, women and children in white hazmat-like suits marched as if they were ready to board a spacecraft, or escape an alien invasion.

The nippy September air and overcast skies hinted rain, but the head of the group, Leah Holloway, showed no signs of turning back. In the shadow of the oak-hickory forest of Heller Nature Reserve, she strode confidently ahead of everyone while carrying a smoldering metallic device.

The assembly was en route to smoke out the nature reserve’s beehive. Despite the threat of getting stung, the novice crowd of children and parents were buzzing with excitement.

“Wow, that is so cool,” Jadin Knowles observed as she inspected a swarm of bees sluggishly clinging to a wooden frame packed with honeycomb. The eight-year-old looked like a mini-astronaut in her head-to-toe bee suit.

Knowles, a student at Quest Academy, a school for gifted children in Palatine, was accompanied by her mother, Carolyn. The Mundelein residents learned of the program from a parenting magazine.

“My daughter has been interested in bees, and workers, and drones and queens,” Carolyn Knowles said. “When we saw that we would be able to wear bee suits and look at actual hives and learn more, she was very excited.”

Another mother-daughter team who showed up for the event were Gail and Danielle Scimeca of Park Ridge. Gail said her daughter is “scared of bees,” so joining the event was a fun way of conquering her fear in an informative and child-friendly environment.

Graham Michelson, a shy 10-year old from Glencoe, perked up as he talked about his close encounter with the stinging kind. He was accompanied by his mom, Loree Sandler.

According to Holloway, naturalist and beekeeper, the Park District of Highland Park is one of the few nature centers in the Chicagoland area that gives public tours of its apiary, or bee yard.

Every season except during winter time, the Heller Center hosts one beekeeping lecture and hands-on experience. This past year, the program suddenly gained popularity, said Holloway. Aside from the three public tours each year, requests for private group viewing have increased. Holloway led a tour for a girl scouts group last week and will lead two more group tours in a few days.

She noted, however, that when temperature drops below 55 degrees Fahrenheit, the beekeepers are not allowed to open the hives.

During the lecture part of the event, participants learned that a typical beehive is composed of 200 to 1,000 bees. The so-called “worker bees” do everything from feeding the queen bee and the drones. The only task of the drone or fertile males, according to Holloway, is to mate with the queen. The worker bees, all sterile female, also determines who gets the “royal jelly,” which in turn determines who among the larva becomes the queen bee.

Holloway told the kids that just like in their respective homes, where children are assigned to help babysit or fix their bed, worker bees’ tasks “are based on their age.”

Aside from its educational purpose, the beehives have also provided additional income for the Heller Center.  The hives in the reserve produce an average of a thousand pounds of honey per year. One year it produced 3,500 pounds of honey, but last year it was down to only 500 pounds. Each bottle of honey is sold for $6, and price has not changed despite the supply fluctuation.

In her lecture, Holloway said the weather, among other factors, plays a big role in the quality and quantity of honey production. Last year for instance, the cold weather prevented the bees from becoming more active. There were also less flowers available for collecting nectar.

To collect their food, the bees travel as far as three miles from their hive. Most of the nectar is collected from nearby flowering plants that grow naturally. Holloway noted, however, that because bees travel far, and are not enclosed in a restricted area, they could also get nectar from plants that might be exposed to chemicals.

Meanwhile, Holloway explained that bees need eight pounds of honey to build a pound of wax. “So if you ever get honey, don’t ever waste it,” she said.

(Correction 10/05/2010: In the article I mentioned there are 200-1000 bees in the hive, but actually there are 200-1000 drones (male bees) in each hive, and there can be around 60,000 bees total in each hive.)

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