Interview with an urban beekeeper

Bees fill an important role in ecosystems as pollinators — even in urban environments. A field trip with an urban beekeeper in Chicago helped to highlight why bees bee-long in cities too.

Anna Westbrook | TPIN

Despite the colder-than-normal and overcast conditions, the beehives on the roof of the brewery radiate with color. Just moments before, beekeeper and owner of Bike a Bee Jana Kinsman had steadily ascended the steps of the fire escape multiple stories in the open air with two bee veils and a smoker in her hands and a well-loved backpack slung across her back.

Now, she works on dismantling the beehive in front of me, pulling out wooden frames covered in honeycomb with her bare hands. 

“The queen is the one laying eggs,” Kinsman explains, gesturing at the largest bee in the mix. “She is essentially the reproductive organ of the colony, which acts as, like, a superorganism. All the bees have very different jobs. Some take care of the young, some are foragers, some clean. There’s many different jobs in the hive, and they all have a job at some point in their lives because it’s determined by age.” 

A beekeeper of eleven years, Kinsman is no stranger to the intricacies of bees’ lives.

Bike a Bee, Kinsman’s business, was born out of feeling unsatisfied with her career as a graphic designer. In 2012, she decided to take a class with the Chicago Honey Co-op about beekeeping and fell in love with it. Now, she bikes all around the south side of Chicago each week to maintain her 40 hives.

Anna Westbrook | TPIN
Using her bare hands, Kinsman pulls out a frame covered with bees from one box in the beehive. Many of the foraging bees that would usually be out searching for food decided to stay home today due to the cooler temperatures. The bees vibrate their bodies to generate heat that keeps the larvae curled up in the honeycomb warm and safe.

Kinsman knew she wanted her business to add more than just delicious local honey to her community, so she worked with community organizations to place a number of her beehives in community gardens and urban farms.

“I wanted beekeeping to be visible in public and I wanted hives to be visible in public so that the public could engage with them,” Kinsman said. “Maybe not going into the hives necessarily, but to see that having them in their community wasn’t a threat.”

National Urban Beekeeping Day, celebrated on July 19, is designed to do exactly that. Originally designated in 2019, the day is an excellent opportunity to spend some time thinking about how important bees are and to learn about the beekeepers that live around you. Although Chicago is an urban area, it has no shortage of beekeepers — and for good reason.

“It’s just important to maintain diversity of insects everywhere because it’s their environment as well” Jana Kinsman

While honeybees are the only bees that produce honey, all types of bees are integral to ecosystems worldwide because of their role as pollinators. In the U.S. bees pollinate one-third of all the food we eat. Globally, ninety percent of wild flowering plants and seventy-five percent of crops rely on pollinators to some extent. Some bees are keystone species in their ecosystems, meaning that their ecosystems rely upon them to function correctly. Bees are important in their ecosystems, to say the least.

But in the past few decades, the American bumblebee population has dropped by 90 percent due to habitat loss, climate change, and pesticide usage, among other reasons.

Anna Westbrook | TPIN
Kinsman peers closely at the cluster of bees on the honeycomb frame in her search for the queen bee of the colony. The female is always the biggest bee in the colony and is the only bee responsible for laying all of the colony’s eggs.

Although bees are facing significant struggles everywhere in the country, urban environments in particular pose unique challenges for bees. One of the main difficulties for bees in cities is the amount of forage available, according to Kinsman. Forage is any food bees consume, like pollen and nectar as protein and carbohydrate sources, respectively.

“So definitely the local people can help out by planting more things that pollinators feast on and in greater quantities,” Kinsman said. “Just planting a few coneflowers is good, but it’s not amazing. What if you could replace your whole lawn with that?”

Some excellent pollinator plants include native milkweed, salvias, goldenrods, lilac, and more. Another extremely effective pollinator plant? Trees. Because they grow vertically, trees provide a substantial quantity of nutrients for bees without taking up much space on the ground.

Certain species of bees also need open space to live, so working to ensure there is undeveloped, relatively undisturbed land that bees can nest in is important.

“Digger bees really love having a slightly shady patch of bare ground where they can dig holes and put their nests,” Kinsman explained. “Every once in a while I get a call from somebody advising on what to do with that, and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re so lucky they’ve chosen your yard.’”

As we’re talking, Kinsman reaches down and gently picks up a bee that has been crawling on the ground around us. Placing the bee on her knee, Kinsman tells me about how she hopes continued exposure to and education about bees will help lessen peoples’ fear of them. Indeed, by making the deliberate decision to place her beehives in community gardens and other public places, Kinsman is engaging in a campaign to increase public awareness of beekeeping and reassure people that bees are friends, not foes.

Education is one of the best ways to address fear about anything — including bees. On TikTok, Erika Thompson, a beekeeper under the username of @texasbeeworks, is making waves by simply posting about what it’s like to beekeep on a day-to-day basis. Kinsman says she has seen the effects of Thompson’s content show up within her own life in the form of what people choose to talk about when they learn she’s a beekeeper.

“They would bring up something about allergies. Like, ‘Oh I heard if you eat local honey, it can help your allergies,’” Kinsman recalled. “But now they bring up the TikTok lady, so I think it’s cool that people get to see that. And I think it’s cool that she does it in such a way where she’s wearing minimal equipment and showing that it’s really not that scary.”

Kinsman further links her community with her beekeeping by forging a connection with customers at the 61st Street Farmers Market where she sells her honey. 

“They get to meet the beekeeper and then they also get to have the honey,” Kinsman said with a smile. “And I get to tell them exactly where it’s from and when it was harvested. For me, that’s the most exciting thing about food — is when I get to have that purchasing experience. So I just hope I’m replicating that for other people. For the most part, people are just jazzed to get local honey and represent their local area, which is cool.”

Anna Westbrook | TPIN
Kinsman stands next to her beehives on the top of a brewery in the south side of Chicago. The hives in the middle are older, more established hives, while the one she is looking at is younger and smaller.

While we may be currently enjoying the fruits of bees’ labor, there is a very real possibility that climate change, habitat loss, and pesticide usage will harm the bees irrevocably.

Fortunately, there are a wide variety of ways to support local pollinator populations during this time of need. Planting pollinator plants in whatever quantities possible, restoring unused developed land, volunteering with local land trusts and preserves, reducing the amount of pesticides and herbicides used on yards, and supporting local beekeepers are all options Kinsman says are helpful.

The love for bees Kinsman has is evident in the way she handles her hives with such care and is eager to share all sorts of interesting facts about how bees live. She is excited to keep beekeeping and teaching the public about how important bees are to the ecosystem. 

“I think the coolest thing is my realization that every insect, if you put a close enough microscope to them, is just as fascinating,” Kinsman reflected. “Bees are cool, yeah, but every other insect has the same incredible life that bees do. But because bees are such an important aspect of our world, we pay more attention to them, put more research into them, et. cetera.”

In a time when bees are facing so many problems as a result of our actions, supporting local pollinator populations is essential for maintaining a healthy, productive ecosystem that we and all of the other plants and animals within it can benefit from.

“It’s just important to maintain diversity of insects everywhere because it’s their environment as well,” Kinsman said. “And it’s selfish of us to think that they don’t deserve to enjoy equal representation in their world.”


Anna Westbrook

Environment Illinois Protect Pollinators Intern

Emily Kowalski

Outreach & Engagement Manager, Environment Illinois Research & Education Center

Emily manages the marketing and public engagement strategy for Environment Illinois's campaigns, including our campaign to protect the Great Lakes from plastic pollution. Emily lives in Chicago where she enjoys knitting and biking.

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