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, we installed two beehives in the spring of 2019, buzzing with up to 20,000 Italian honeybees, on the Main Library’s Green Roof.

With our two rooftop hives, the library joined a small community of beekeepers in Oak Park—including resident hobbyists and the Village of Oak Park. At the time, the library was one of nine permit holders licensed to keep up to two beehives in Oak Park, according to the Department of Public Health.

Who manages the hives? An experienced volunteer and a staff ‘convert’

Experienced beekeeper and library volunteer Debbie Becker helped us get our hives up and buzzing in April 2019, and she regularly visits to help maintain them.

Volunteer Debbie Becker checks the hives.

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 (pictured above, his gloved hand covered with bees).

Although skeptical at first, O’Neil said getting to observe the bees up close had made him a convert.

Becker, who belongs to an area beekeeping group called WAX | Westside Apiary eXperience, said she 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 said. “Usually in the first year, nobody takes much.”

We donated more than 47 bottles of our raw rooftop honey to Beyond Hunger in December 2020.

Honey harvest

In fall 2019, after our first season with the bees, we were able to harvest a big jar of honey, while leaving enough honey in the hive for the bees to feed on during the winter.

And in our second year, we harvested even more!

Thanks to Becker, we were able to donate more than 47 bottles of our raw rooftop honey to Beyond Hunger (formerly Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry).

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.

More ways to help pollinators: 2021 is the Year of the Butterfly »

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.”

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