Last night, amateur and professional beekeepers gathered at the Chicago Downtown Farmstand for a conversation about honey production in Chicago and the challenges with raising bees in an urban environment. Panelists included Chicago Honey Co-op’s Michael Thompson, Donna Oppolo from the Pilsen Beekeepers Association, beekeeping hobbyist Aza Quinn-Brauner, and Garfield Park Conservatory’s Head Beekeeper Julio Tuma. Chicago’s Culinary Ambassador Judith Dunbar Hines moderated the panel discussion.
Colony Collapse Disorder was a topic on everyone’s mind, and panelists talked about the stresses that commercial beekeeping brings and how it may contribute to CCD. Not only are bees exposed to chemicals and travel, they’re also fed pollen from mono-culture crops instead of enjoying a variety of pollen from many plants. The commercial beekeeping industry has also made it hard for independent honey producers to find local queen bees. Producers have to travel out of state in order to find queens, but often can’t find bees that are suited for this environment. To combat the problem, area beekeepers formed the Illinois Queen Initiative to help raise local queens.
Why is it important to eat locally produced honey? Honey that’s found in grocery stores is a mish-mash of cheaply produced honeys from all over the world. Quality control and environmentally sound practices are very difficult to enforce and you’re never certain where the honey actually originated. As with many crops, if you know your farmer and how they operate, then you’ll have more confidence in the quality of the end product and treatment of the bees. Also, there are theories that eating hyper-locally produced honey will help with pollen allergies.
After the talk, we were invited to try samples from each of the producers. A few of the honeys had become crystallized, but this isn’t a defect in the product. It’s merely an indication of the ratio between glucose and fructose in the honey. If you prefer non-crystallized honey, don’t microwave it because this destroys the essential oils that give local honeys their flavor. Instead, gently warm the honey in a water bath to no hotter than 130 degrees.
If you’re curious and want to try locally-produced honey, five different independent honey producers sell products at the Downtown Farmstand. Honey is also available from the city’s Geneva and City Hall/Municipal hives.