On the third Thursday of each November, without fail, Paris sidewalks become a bit more crowded as cafés and wine shops ceremoniously display wooden sandwich boards announcing the arrival of a certain much-anticipated wine harvest. For all of the year-round adoration showered on their wines, nothing is quite as emphatic as the perennial chorus: “Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!”
For the past few years, Chicago has had its own type of autumnal harvest to boast, one that tends to be a tad stickier than wine. While it may not produce the relaxing effect of a glass of crimson Beaujolais, Chicago’s “Rooftop Honey” is crafted to the tunes of a lot of buzz by some 200,000 diligently working bees on top of City Hall.
As part of Mayor Daley’s plan to green the city, two hives of Italian honeybees have occupied the northwest corner of City Hall’s 20,000-square-foot rooftop garden since they were installed in the spring of 2003. While visiting Germany in 2000, Daley was inspired to adopt aspects of urban agriculture that he saw. During the industrial revolution, Europeans who gravitated toward city life in search of jobs often brought their apiary skills with them from the countryside. The ritual has continued on balconies and rooftops through the century. One popular beekeeping operation in existence today is a group of five hives quietly perched atop Paris’ opera house, Le Palais Garnier. 72-year old Jean Paucton, a retired props man, established the hives on the roof of the opera house in 1985 after discovering another employee farming fish in the basement. Like the Chicago City Hall bees, Paucton’s gather nectar in a five-mile radius that can include the trees and flowers along the Champs-Elysees or in the picturesque Pere LaChaise cemetery. The result of their labor, known for a delicate, spicy flavor, is pale golden and intensely floral tasting. “Opera Honey” is sold in Paris at the opera house gift shop and the legendary bakery, Fauchon.
While honey can come in as many different varieties as wine—each varietal is determined by the type of flower or plant pollinated by the bees—here in Chicago, the major source of pollen is the vast amounts of clover found within the five-mile radius in which the bees pollinate. This area includes Belmont Avenue to the north, 35th Street to the south, Kedzie to the west and Lake Michigan to the east.
Back in 2003, Daley’s go-to source for keeping bees was Stephanie Averill. She had already made a name for herself as an urban apiarist by the hives she kept in her yard in Bucktown. “What’s so amazing to me is that the bees really gave that rooftop a more positive spin by incorporating urban agriculture,” says Averill. “Bees are an essential part of nature. Through their presence on City Hall, we can see agriculture within these concrete buildings.”
Averill and her apiary partner Michael Thompson keep their honey palettes finely tuned as they manage the City Hall honeybee project. Thompson explains how the bees produce two different types of honey—each with distinct flavor and color.
Honey produced from pollen during the spring/summer months is “very light, almost a pale yellow-green.” Declaring the batch delicious, Thompson even claims, “It would be comparable against all other honeys in the world.” He and Averill agree that it is “in the top ten percent of any honey they have ever tasted.” Explaining that, “on the worldwide market, lighter honey is more desirable,” he attributes high amounts of sweet white clover to the quality of the light spring/summer batch. White aster and goldenrod are the major nectar sources in the fall in Chicago. Thompson describes the honey produced during the early fall as “dark amber, richer and more complex—perhaps better used for cooking.”
Gleaning the 200 pounds of honey per hive is accomplished in the basement culinary center of Gallery 37, a city venue for youth programs. The honeycombs are put into an extractor after using a hot knife to “de-cap”—skimming off the top layer of wax. The combs are spun until the honey is ready to be removed via a spout at the bottom of the machine.
And like fine wine, scarcity is a factor. While the project grows, purchase of “Rooftop Honey” is limited to two jars per customer.
Each two-ounce jar of “Rooftop Honey” sells for $2 at three locations; Gallery 37, 66 East Randolph Street, the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 East Washington Street and the Chicago Avenue Water Tower and Pumping Station, on North Michigan Avenue at Chicago Avenue. Proceeds go toward Chicago Cultural Center projects.