Just about every day, Theo Watanabe heads to her Skokie backyard to check up on and to say hello to “the girls.”
They’re usually just fine – buzzing around the beehive she set up in time for spring’s warmer weather and ready to take off over a backyard fence that separates her premises from an alley.
“I installed the beehive here on purpose so the bees would fly in this direction rather than toward (the neighbors’) backyards,” she says.
That hasn’t though stopped one set of neighbors from complaining about the backyard beehive, nor Skokie’s elected leaders from considering a ban on hobbyists’ backyard beekeeping.
Watanabe and other local beekeepers believe complaints about backyard beekeeping are groundless, and they say the village’s potential ban is borne more from misconceptions about beekeeping than from reality.
Perhaps the biggest misconception, according to backyard beekeepers, is the danger that bees pose. The average person assumes that bees sting, some people are allergic to bees and it doesn’t make sense to maintain them in a residential area.
But not all bees are alike, they note.
Backyard beekeepers’ hives do not serve as home to yellow jacket wasps – the more familiar kind of yellow-and-black bugs usually responsible for painful stings if one gets too close. Rather, honeybees dwell in these backyard hives, and they mostly leave people alone, Watanabe and others insist.
A subset of bees in the genus Apis, honeybees produce and store honey and construct perennial, colonial nests made out of wax. Proponents say they pollinate gardens and have many attributes – especially since the field of pollinators is dwindling.
During a cloudy afternoon, Watanabe stands next to her hive without wearing any protective gear. The bees do not attack or try to sting her; in fact, she lets one bee crawl onto her finger.
She only wears the protective gear when conducting a full inspection of the hive to make sure there are no problems. So far, so good. Her hive is a bit smaller than many, and she installed it on legs so skunks could not easily get to it. It’s well-ventilated, too – a Ritz-Carlton of sorts, only cozier if you happen to be a honeybee.
“This one has some pretty ragged wings,” she says as the bee explores her hand. “It must be an old bee ready for the graveyard or whatever.”
Her bees, she says, live happily inside the boxes that make up her hive. More specifically, they build honeycombs within wax frames that hang from the beehive drawers – sort of like file folders – and lay eggs or store honey and pollen there.
“The only things honeybees do,” Watanabe says, “is go out and look for pollen and nectar and bring them back to the hive and store them in their honeycomb. The nectar, they fan off the water and evaporate it and it becomes honey. Then they seal it up with wax.”
Watanabe expresses the view of many proponents when she says hobby beekeeping is “great for the environment.”
“As you know,” she says, “we’re losing all the pollinators, and it has very little impact on my neighbors. They fly up and out and travel three to four miles looking for food.”
There is no concentration of bees anywhere but at the hive in the corner of her backyard, she maintains.
But Skokie’s health department isn’t as certain about the environmental benefits of backyard beekeeping as are its supporters.
In researching backyard beekeeping, Health Director Dr. Catherine Counard agreed that the number of pollinators is dwindling, but she sees no evidence from studies that backyard beekeeping changes that landscape.
“Even though I’m a biologist, even though I care about honeybees,” Counard said recently, “I just don’t think it’s a good idea. At the moment, it amounts to a hobby for a few individuals with uncertain benefits to the community.”
Counard emphasized Skokie’s small lot sizes compared to some other communities that allow backyard beekeeping. Her recommendation for the ban came from concerns about neighbors and the potential risk of someone with bee allergies being stung.
Unlike some area backyard beekeepers, Watanabe, a 23-year-Skokie resident, is relatively new at her hobby. An avid gardener, she is enjoying her first season as a beekeeper after she meticulously researched the practice.
“I had an interest in beekeeping early and put it aside,” she says. “But now I have the time to do it. If you read anything about bees, it’s so fascinating. I wanted to do it right.”
She approached the village last year and was told there is no law against backyard beekeeping. So she targeted this spring as her startup date.
Watanabe became among the 139,000 to 225,000 beekeepers in the country, most of them hobbyists.
“And that’s what I am,” she says, proudly. “A hobby beekeeper. A lot of people around here are. Beekeepers are amongst us everywhere. We just don’t know about it.”
For Watanabe, backyard beekeeping was a logical extension of her lifelong love for gardening.
“Gardening connects you to the natural world,” she says. “We’re so far from it in our daily lives. First thing I do in the morning before I even eat breakfast is come out and visit the plants, see what’s new, what’s grown, what’s ripe.”
Now, she also says good morning to “her girls.”
“Honeybees are so essential,” she enthusiastically maintains. “If the pollinators go, and they are going, all we’ll essentially have is grain, no dairy, less coffee, no fruits and vegetables.”
For the last seven years, she says, more than 30 percent of the honeybee population on average has been lost.
“That’s incredible,” she says.
Skokie’s health department agrees that the loss of pollinators is a real problem. The question, though, is whether backyard beekeeping is a part of the solution, or whether the nuisance and health risk it potentially creates for neighbors is just too great.
“Honeybees have been domesticated for 4,000 years with little problem,” Watanabe responds, adding that few of the bee stings during warm days come from honeybees.
“They just don’t care about you or care about me,” she says about her bees, as many of them buzz around her showing little interest in stinging. “As long as you’re not a flower, you should be safe.”