Building community: Beehives at the Main Library

As part of our ongoing focus to sustain the natural environment and to offer new opportunities to learn, this spring we installed two beehives, buzzing with up to 20,000 Italian honeybees, on the Main Library’s Green Roof.

With our two hives, the library joins a small community of beekeepers in Oak Park—including resident hobbyists, the Village of Oak Park, and the Park District of Oak Park, which added observational hives to the Oak Park Conservatory in May. The library is currently one of nine permit holders licensed to keep up to two beehives in Oak Park, according to the Department of Public Health.

Volunteer expertise

Local beekeeping expert and library volunteer Debbie Becker helped us get our hives up and buzzing in April, and she regularly visits to help maintain them.

Becker, who belongs to an area beekeeping group called WAX | Westside Apiary eXperience, first became interested in beekeeping when she took a class at the Garfield Park Conservatory.

When an Oak Park ban on beekeeping was lifted in 2011, she became a backyard beekeeper, harvesting 70 pounds of honey from her hives one summer. “It looked like an impressive amount,” she says, noting that she doesn’t expect the library hives will produce much honey this year. “Usually in the first year, nobody takes much,” she says. Plus, the cold and rainy weather has contributed to “a slow honey year so far.”

In early June, Becker shared her expertise with library staff at our Staff Engagement Day, including why bees are crucial to our ecoystem and what we can do to help them flourish.

Why keep honeybees?

Besides producing honey and beeswax, honeybees are important pollinators of agricultural crops such as almonds. It’s often said that pollinators—including honeybees and other bee species, butterflies, birds, and bats—provide for one of every three bites of food we eat.

That’s because, in order to produce seeds, fruit, and more plants, plants must be pollinated. Unfortunately, many pollinators are in decline, for reasons including loss of habitat, disease, climate change, and pesticide use.

‘Spread the word and keep on planting’

To provide enough forage for honeybees and native bees, gardeners can reduce turf lawn space and add a diversity of plantings, including native and pollinator-friendly plants, such as aster, borage, chives, Joe Pye weed, and lavender. “Spread the word and keep on planting,” Becker says.

And consider letting the dandelions grow. They’re among the flowers with pollen high in the bacteria lactobacillus acidophilus, which is great for bees’ gut health.

“Gardeners are concerned and educating themselves,” Becker says, mentioning that she was thrilled to see what happened when someone posted about getting rid of dandelions on a local gardening Facebook page. “Several people told her to hold on a second and keep the flowers for the bees,” she says. “That would not have happened three years ago.”

‘Fingers crossed’

The library’s Facilities Manager Rory O’Neil also regularly monitors the hives on the Main Library Green Roof, while wearing full-body protective gear. Although skeptical at first, he says getting to observe the bees up close has made him a convert.

And there’s been a lot to learn so far. In May, Becker found that one of the hives did not have a viable queen, so they combined the two hives into one.

Then in June, Becker saw that the bees seemed too crowded in the one hive and were “thinking about swarming,” she says. “That’s when the bees create several new queens, and the old queen takes off with half the hive before the new queens emerge.”

So she split the hive back into two—which as a side benefit can help keep down the varroa mite population, a common honeybee pest. “Fingers crossed that it all goes well,” Becker says.

Stay tuned for more news from the Green Roof as our beekeeping experience develops, and check out related library resources and community events this summer.

Community events, librarian-curated titles

See the Oak Park Conservatory beehives

On Saturday, June 22, 10-11:30 am, the Park District of Oak Park invites the community to see their recently installed beehives at the Oak Park Conservatory, 615 Garfield St. The Oak Park Conservatory 90th Anniversary party includes kids’ activities, tours, and more to celebrate new sustainable projects with funding from Green Mountain Energy Company Sun Club.

“They are really unique observation hives and we are very excited about them,” says Patti Staley, Director of Horticulture/Conservatory Operations, adding that they are also planning related classes, workshops, and events for the remainder of the year. 

Taste local honey in the Maze Branch Sensory Garden

Have you heard about the new Maze Branch Sensory Garden? On Wednesday, July 17, 4-5 pm, join us there for Community Empathy: All About the Bees. We’ll welcome Sugar Beet Co-op to help us learn about bees and taste some local organic honey. 

Check out titles from the catalog

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