Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week’s Chicagoan is Jana Kinsman, 31, the bicycling beekeeper.
I wanted to get more involved in urban agriculture, but I didn’t like growing things. It was tedious, and I wasn’t good at it. I thought livestock would be a better option, so I thought, “What would the smallest livestock be?” And that’s bees.
So I took a class, and the following summer I worked with a beekeeper. The beekeeper’s like, “We need to make sure you’re not allergic to bee stings. It’s important it happens here, rather than at a remote location where we’d have to drive you somewhere.” So he grabbed my arm, and he grabbed a bee, and he just stung me with it.
He didn’t give me any instructions. He just handed me a veil. He didn’t even show me how to put the veil on. We just started working, and he explained things as we went. I started my beekeeping career being really casual about it, not even wearing gloves, and I think that helped me get over whatever fears I had right away.
After that, that’s when I started Bike a Bee. We place beehives in community gardens on the south side. We place the hives in spring, and then we take care of them throughout the year. We own all the equipment, we harvest all the honey, and we sell it. When I say “we,” it’s the royal we.
We visit the bees by bicycle because when I started the project, I didn’t have a car. And I was a huge cyclist and still am, so I wanted to prove that you could do anything by bicycle, and also it was my only option. I check my hives once a week, and it’s only about 12 or so miles.
There’s a lot of things bees are supposed to do, but they’re wild animals; they just do what they want to do, no matter what. A lot of people in this world, they want things to be black-and-white, and beekeeping teaches you to let go of that and participate in the natural world, which is not predictable. Which is why it’s great.
It’s dangerous to anthropomorphize bees. People really want to put them into the context of having a conscious mind. But they’re an animal that’s moved by environmental pressures and stuff like that. I’m glad I don’t anthropomorphize them, because then I respect them as an animal all their own. I don’t feel close to them, because they don’t feel close to me. I feel close to the act of beekeeping; I love beekeeping, but the bees don’t know who I am.
Everybody just gets so hung up on the stinging thing. But would you stop riding a bike if you knew you could fall off and get hurt? It’s just part of working with a stinging insect. I wear shorts and a button-down shirt and a veil. Last year I think I got stung 12 times in the whole year, and considering I work with 40-plus beehives with tens of thousands of bees inside of them, that’s not a lot.
When you’re working with a beehive, you have to be pretty focused on what you’re doing so you don’t accidentally kill a lot of bees. I’m the kind of person who listens to music while I’m driving or taking a shower, but when I’m beekeeping, I can’t listen to music at all. I lose track of time really easily when I’m beekeeping. I can’t make promises like, “I’ll meet you for lunch at noon,” because I’ll start working with the bees, and I look at my watch and I missed my lunch date. I don’t know if it’s comparable to meditation, but I find it’s one of the best, most calming things that I can do with my time. If you were beekeeping, you would understand. v