Four color-coded hives with 10,000 bees each have been installed in Eggleston Park, across McCormick Boulevard from the Ecology Center. In a couple of years, residents may be able to have Evanston-made honey.        Photo by Erica Doroghazi

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Earlier this month, four hives with about 10,000 honeybees each were installed in Eggleston Park, near the Ecology Center Farmette and the Edible Evanston Orchard, just west of McCormick Boulevard and south of Bridge Street. Each hive is painted a different color so that bees can recognize their own hive when they return from foraging.

Honey bees were introduced to the new world about 400 years ago, said Gene Robinson, Ph.D., Director of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Evanston’s bees came from the Cook-DuPage Beekeepers Association, said Ecology Center Program Director Matt Poole. Bees from that association typically come from pollinating groups in California or Georgia, he added.

Honey bees are “amazingly adaptable,” Dr. Robinson said, and, as long as there are favorable temperatures and good floral sources, it takes little or no time for them to adapt to a new place.

Mr. Poole said the bees are already acclimated to Evanston. “They took a couple of scouting runs, found some food sources, and made their way back. … They come and go throughout the day – they don’t leave and come back as a group,” he said.
The apiary will allow Ecology Center staff to provide educational programming about the biology, anatomy, and behavior of honey bees, as well as to
educate community members about threats to the honey bee population and what they can do to help.

No specific programs are planned at present, Mr. Poole said. “Right now, the staff is providing food and checking on the bees every five or seven days,” he said.

Typically honey bees produce more than enough honey to feed their colonies. Still, said Dr. Robinson, gathering food from an ephemeral food source “is a tough way to make a living.” Not only are flowers seasonal, they are not open 24/7. The bees take the nectar, which is about 30% sugar, add chemicals of their own making, and convert it to honey, which is about 85% sugar, he said.

Beekeepers gather the excess honey. Mr. Poole said perhaps by the second year of the program, the Evanston bees will produce enough honey that there will be honey available for Evanstonians.

Although each hive has about 10,000 bees, they are likely to increase to about 40,000 each, Mr. Poole said. The new bees will be those born in the hives rather than attracted away from their own nests. A queen bee typically lays 1,500-2,000 eggs per day, except in winter, Dr. Robinson said.

Honey bees are not territorial or aggressive, Mr. Poole said. “They attack only if they feel they are in danger. And if they sting, they lose their lives.”

Dr. Robinson said, similarly, “Bees are deeply aggressive to defend the hive and are not territorial except in front of the hive. … If the beehives are properly managed and if they are located so that people are not coming into close contact with them, then there would be no additional danger beyond chance encounters.”

A honey bee swarm, which occurs only in spring and which may seem somewhat scary to those already afraid of bees and other stinging insects, is “a highly rare event,” Dr. Robinson said. “The way bees reproduce is by swarming. When bees seem to feel the hive is getting too crowded, this triggers preparations to swarm. The reproduction is that the hive splits in two. Half the bees leave with the old queen; the colony has already reared a new queen,” he said.

Beekeepers try to minimize or prevent swarming by giving bees plenty of room.

The bees will over-winter here but be less visible, as they will remain inside the hive trying to keep warm. The colony is pretty much shut down in winter, Dr. Robinson said. “The bees huddle together in tight clusters and shiver to keep each other warm.” The bees can detach their wings from the muscles used for flying and use those muscles to shiver, he said.

The apiary is expected to benefit Evanston gardens, as honey bees provide critical pollination for many native plants and crops, such as tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers, Dr. Robinson said – not to mention the gorgeous cavalcade of summer flowers.Gene Robinson, Ph.D., is Director of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. His research group uses the Western honey bee, Apis melli-fera, to understand the evolution and mechanisms of social behavior. Social insects such as honeybees “live in societies that rival our own in complexity and internal cohesion,” he writes in “Honey Bee Research at the University of Illinois.”

“Eusocial” insects exhibit the “most extreme form of animal social life,” living in colonies with overlapping generations, cooperative brood care, and a reproductive division of labor. The queen reproduces, while the workers perform tasks related to colony growth and development and engage in little, if any, reproduction themselves, according to the Honey Bee Research.

These eusocial honey bees have large and complex societies, with intricate divisions of labor to guarantee the survival of the colony and their own symbolic communication in the form of a dance.

Dr. Robinson writes in “Honey Bee Research” that the division of labor “has made possible the evolution of traits normally associated with human society: agriculture, warfare and symbolic language. … [O]wing to the bee’s special status as a producer of honey and the premier animal pollinator, it has been closely associated with human beings for millennia. As a result, we know more about honey bees than just about any other animal on earth.”

To ensure the survival of the colony, honey bees coordinate nearly all their activities with the others in the colony. Dr. Robinson’s research has found, “social insects, especially honey bees, are thus exemplars for the discovery of general principles of brain function, behavior, and social organization.”

The discovery of the honey bee dance earned a Nobel prize for Karl von Frisch. The honey bee is the only non-mammal to have a symbolic language, Dr. Robinson writes, and the honey bee dance language “shatters our perception of what an insect brain can accomplish and provides a great challenge to discovering how a small brain can generate complex behavior.”

One aspect of this complex behavior is the dance, performed within the hive to communicate the direction and quality of floral sources outside – that is, information useful for the survival of the colony. Because honey bees work for the continued existence of the hive or colony, and because the dance communicates the location of a good food source, Dr. Robinson and his researchers hypothesized that the dance “had to do with the reward system in the brain – a reward for doing something for others. We wondered whether the brain was wired to feel good when they do something good for other bees. … We wondered whether bees would dance if given cocaine. …  And the bees danced more on cocaine.”

Cocaine “hijacks the reward system,” Dr. Robinson said, and the finding that the honey bees danced more on cocaine provided an insight to addiction. “As exemplars of social behavior, bees help us to understand better how social life works.”

Illinois Bees

There are between 400 and 500 species of bee native to Illinois, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, but the honey bee is not among them.There are solitary, communal, semi-social, and eusocial (extremely social) bees, as well as the cuckoo bees that are nest parasites and rely on other bees to raise their young. As pollinators, bees help provide for the existence of many plant species and in turn, all terrestrial animals, including humans.Bees in Illinois have varied habitats, such as woodlands, grasslands, and even cities, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Some bees live in the ground. Others use existing holes in hollow stems, dead wood, and rock crevices for nest sites or excavate holes in wood to form a chamber for their eggs. Habitat loss, pesticide use, mites, competition from nonnative species, and diseases are killing pollinators. BeeSpotter, a partnership between citizen-scientists and the professional science community, is designed to educate the public about pollinators by engaging them in a data collection effort of importance to the nation. It is a web-based portal at the University of Illinois ( for learning about honey bees and bumble bees and for contributing data to a nationwide effort to collect baseline information on population status of these insects.At present BeeSpotter is collecting bee-spotting in the states of Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Ohio, but the hope is to eventually expand to other states as well. Bee-spotters are asked to post at least one photo with each submission, as the expert identifier cannot respond to any ID request that does not have a photo.