Sign up for News & Updates

Interview with volunteer AOLC beekeeper Heidi Petersen

Photo of AOLC beekeepers courtesy of John Lodder.

Heidi is one of five dedicated volunteers who make up the Learning Center’s beekeeping team, and tend our beehives weekly at our urban farmstead in Woodlawn at 6400 S. Kimbark. You can learn more about our bees and how to start your own hive at our upcoming Beekeeping workshop on March 26. Heidi was interviewed by AOLC Grants Coordinator Laura Wetter.


Q. When and how did you first become interested in beekeeping?

Heidi: My curiosity was piqued (like many others) when Colony Collapse Disorder made the news.  As terrible as CCD is, at least it started a national dialogue on the importance of bees specifically and pollinators in general.  I had been volunteering regularly at the Garfield Park Conservatory and when they offered a beekeeping class, I jumped at the opportunity.


Q. When and how did you begin volunteering with the Learning Center?

Heidi: The head beekeeper at Garfield Park, Julio Tuma, knew that the Learning Center needed a beekeeper and he passed my name along.  I lived in the neighborhood and it was a good fit.  I started at the beginning of the 2010 season, early March.

Q. What are some of the challenges of keeping bees in the city?

Heidi: It's an issue of space.  I live in an apartment so I don't have a place for my own hives. Chicago is a very bee friendly city.  Bees do well here.  Urban honey is very tasty – the bees have so many options in terms of foraging, their honey tends to be very rich in flavor.  But there are some communities that aren't so accepting, and bees are on the books as a public nuisance.  Be sure to check your local ordinances!

Q. How do you deal with bee stings?

Heidi: I accept that it's just part of the deal.  The bees aren't malicious; they're just reacting and protecting their hive.  I do tend to swell, though.  People can always tell when I've been at the hive.

Q. What do you find to be most fascinating about working with bees, and what have you learned from this work?

Heidi: I think the fact that different hives have different personalities is incredible.  If you have a queen that is very aggressive and a queen that is very docile, their hives will take on their personalities – in fact we have just that scenario at the Learning Center.  I'm also fascinated by the fact that the bees tend to mirror my mood. If I go into the hive with an unfocused mind, or if I'm worried or upset about other things, the bees seem to sense it.  I definitely get stung more on those days.  What I've learned is to approach the hives with a quiet, clear mind.  It's become one of my favorite parts of my week.  It is very meditative. Inspecting hives has also taught me to be very observant.  


Q.  The Learning Center has a Langstroth as well as a top-bar hive. Can you give us a brief overview of the difference between the two? We would also love to hear about the naming of the queens.  

Heidi: Langstroth and top-bar hives have different structures on which the bees build comb.  Top-bar hives are simpler and cheaper to make, and are used more often in poorer countries.  In top-bar hives, the bees make natural forms from the top of a wooden bar set in a big box.  Langstroth hives are what most people imagine when they picture a beehive.  They are made of stacked boxes, each with 10 frames with wax or plastic foundations.  The bees build cells on either side of the foundations.  Langstroths make it easy for a beekeeper to extract honey without damaging the comb.

Naming the queens is a great Learning Center tradition- each one is named after a volunteer's grandmother.  In the past we've had Queen Barbara, Queen Norma, and Queen Margie.  It's a sweet tradition.


Q. Can you give us an update on what is happening with the hives right now?

Heidi: Late winter, early spring is when you stop by the hive and give a knock on the side, put your ear on the hive, and hope you hear the girls buzzing their response.  It's time to start thinking about cleaning equipment and maintenance, ordering bees if you need to - perhaps you want to add a new hive, or your colony didn't over-winter. I'll admit I've been doing a lot day dreaming about spring in anticipation of another season! 

Q. Do you have a favorite use for your honey or beeswax?

Heidi: I like honey in a Hot Toddy.  As for beeswax, I think you should mind your own.


Q. Can you give an aspiring beekeeper advice on resources, books, or other tips for beginning a hive?

Heidi: Absolutely!  There are so many books out there.  Read as much as you can. Research as much as you can; the Internet is a great source.  Definitely take a class.  But my best advice is to meet other beekeepers.  Join a beekeeping club.  Beekeepers are generally passionate about their bees and love any opportunity to share their knowledge.