- As part of my lifelong quest to be more like a honey bee, I am starting a series called, “Hive Mates”! Posts in this series will appear periodically and feature some amazing beekeepers and their efforts from around the world. I’m kicking this off with an interview I did will Jana Kinsman of Bike A Bee! Jana is doing impressive and important work in the Chicago area, read on to find out more about her.
- Tell us about yourself. Where do you live? How did you get into beekeeping?
I grew up in the west suburbs of Chicago and moved to the city when I was 19. I still live in Chicago, in the south side neighborhood of McKinley Park. For my whole life I have been interested in nature, insects especially. I was fascinated by metamorphosis, and loved the tiny, intricate beauty of caterpillars. After leaving my job as a graphic designer, I wanted to explore urban agriculture in Chicago, but I didn’t like growing things. I felt like livestock would be right for me, and what livestock is smaller than honeybees? I took a class with the Chicago Honey Co-op and was instantly fascinated. Long story short, I ended up apprenticing in Eugene, OR and learning the hands-on aspect of beekeeping. From there, I returned home restless and jobless, and decided to start Bike a Bee via Kickstarter.
What kind of programs are you running at Bike A Bee?
Bike a Bee started as a program where I would place hives at community gardens and urban farms throughout chicago and tend them by bicycle. Over the years it’s grown from 10 hives in community gardens to 36 hives spread over the city’s south and west sides, as well as in 3 rural locations on certified organic farms. Most of the work I do has focused around public beekeeping and capturing neighborhood honey varietals, but this year I’ve expanded into teaching hands-on classes, making house calls, and doing bumblebee colony rescue. I also visit with schools and other groups, from girl scouts to gardening clubs, when I can.
- How many hives do you manage? How many apiary sites?
Between swarm captures, splits and failures, the number of hives fluctuates! Usually somewhere between 35-40 colonies. I have seven apiaries on the south and west sides, two apiaries in rural Ottawa, IL, and one apiary in rural Winslow, IL. I run my business out of The Plant and my main apiary is on the roof there, with about 12 hives/nucs.
- How do you keep track of your hives? Do you take notes?
I take good notes in little Field Notes notebooks. They’re pocket-sized and each season requires one or two of them. Each apiary has a name, usually the garden or host’s name, and each hive is labeled with cardinal directions. For example, the Pie Patch U-Pick farm has two hives, Pie Patch E and Pie Patch W. If there are many hives, like at one of my apiaries in Ottawa, I draw a diagram and number them from behind. Then I take notes below in a numbered list format. At The Plant where I do a lot of splitting, swarm rehoming, and queen experiments, some hives are numbered and some are named. Favorite queens and their lineage usually have a name, like one of my favorites this year is Queen Beyoncé. Captured swarms are named by the person who called me about them, so I have had some beautiful quirky names like Queen Jazarah, Queen Michael, Queen Tova, and Queen Amaranth. My queen tracking is probably where I need to go digital, just to keep better organized year after year.
- What’s the best part of beekeeping?
The constant critical thinking. I love being constantly surprised by what bees are doing, and learning something new every week. As my friend once said, “every year is a master’s degree.” I also love being outside and being connected with the rhythm of the seasons. Observation, observation, observation!
- What’s the worst part of beekeeping?
The worst part of beekeeping are the external factors. Having hives stolen, vandalized, and damaged really deflates me. Last year one of my hives was beat up by some kids with a baseball bat and was left open and exposed for over a week (a rainy week, at that.) I found it without its inner and outer cover when I arrived for inspection. the groundskeeper came out to talk to me and said he saw it happen, but didn’t think to call me. I inspected the hive that day, sobbing the entire time. That hive died before winter even hit, which was really sad. Worrying about weather, too. Keeping track of tornadoes going through my rural apiary locations, having to put a hive back together in the dead of winter after a windstorm… very anxiety inducing.
- All new beekeepers make mistakes, can you share one you made when you were a beginner?
My first time installing packages I made a mistake. I released the queen into one of the hives after dumping the bees in, and left the empty queen cage next to the hive. Some of the queen’s scent must have remained on the cage, because 1/2 of the population exited the hive and clustered on the cage. I came back a few days later to find a pile of dead bees outside, killed by the chilly overnights in spring. The surviving population never recovered and stayed small the rest of the year, until I eventually combined it with it’s neighboring hive. During classes now I always instruct our students to take the empty queen cage with them!
- You do quite a few swarm rescues, is there one that stands out in your mind as your favorite? Tell us about it.
Aw man, every swarm capture is unique, it’s hard to pick! Certainly my most famous one to date happened this summer when a swarm landed on a signpost right on Michigan avenue in the heart of downtown Chicago. My apprentice Cheyenne and I got, like, 7 calls while we were beekeeping at The Plant so we rushed downtown to find a huge crowd watching this swarm of bees on this pole. Every Chicago-area news agency was there, too, with cameras filming! Cheyenne and I calmly gathered up the swarm wearing only our veils for protection, and did a good job explaining to the crowd how it was a really calm and cool happening. The best part of this capture was that it was both Cheyenne’s first swarm capture AND first time on TV! I spent the subsequent days doing radio interviews and morning shows, spreading positive information about bee swarms all over Chicagoland. It was a great PR experience for Chicago’s urban bees!
- What accomplishment (so far) are you most proud of?
Kind of what I said in the last answer; I am proud of each and every person whose mind I have changed about bees. Countless friends and strangers have told me that I helped them not be afraid, or inspired them to plant a tree or flowers on their property, or helped them convince their husband to not mow their lawn so low as to allow the dutch clover to grow. Every person I reach is how I measure my success.
- Is there anything new you are working on now that you’re excited about?
This summer I started rescuing bumblebees, and that has been so fun that I want to expand my native bee education efforts. In north america, honey bees are not native. There are so many native bees that get overlooked because they don’t make surplus honey for human consumption, and I want to really put a spotlight on them. They are our special bees!
- What challenges have you faced as a female beekeeper/entrepreneur?
As with any woman in male-dominated professions, I have to work harder than men might have to to prove myself a capable and extremely knowledgeable beekeeper. Frequently when I tell older male beekeepers that I am also a beekeeper, they react as if it’s a quaint notion. Then I tell them I care for 40 hives and have been for 5 years and they start taking me seriously. I have a feeling they react that way to both genders, though. Old-guard beekeepers can be a tough crowd at first. Also in many beekeeping classes that I’ve taught there is usually an overpowering male student who feels they must help me carry things, question my knowledge by citing things they’ve heard elsewhere, or somehow prove themselves to me and the other students.
- How did you or do you overcome those challenges?
The best way to prove yourself to other beekeepers is to succeed in the niche you’ve carved out for yourself. I just kept plugging away and putting in the hard work and now I am well respected. I also am kind and gregarious when meeting other beekeepers, which helps, as much as I want to have my guard up sometimes. As a result of my experiences, I’ve made a point of trying to help every new beekeeper I meet on their path to success, especially other female-identifying beekeepers. We’re all in this together!