A Visit with Jana Kinsman of Bike a Bee: Building Hives & Sharing Honey in Chicago

Maker Tour

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Who: Jana Kinsman
WhatBike a Bee
Where: Chicago, Illinois

Whenever I'm lucky enough to see beekeeper Jana Kinsman, she’s always sharing something with me: half her cookie, knowledge about bikes, butter and bees or an adorable, hand-drawn doodle. Jana is an illustrator, beekeeper and graphic designer in Chicago. Her latest project, Bike a Bee, is a reflection of her generosity and aims to contribute local honey to the city’s farmers markets, while also creating community collaboration.

Jana's formal education is in design, but her practical knowledge draws from her time spent biking all over the country and working at an apiary in Eugene, Oregon. She quickly fell in with the beekeeping process, paired her bee plans with her favorite mode of transportation and in January 2012 a Kickstarter was born. In the summer of 2012, once Bike a Bee was funded, Jana was able to build Bike a Bee's first eight hives and start teaching classes and workshops for elementary school kids. I spent a lovely spring morning following Jana and a Bike a Bee volunteer on one of their routes through the West side of Chicago.

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The Test Workshop

Jana works out of her apartment (equipped with an enviable amount mason jars) and a Logan Square coworking space. Most of her time is spent on her bike and out in the gardens. When it comes time to harvest she sets up shop in her kitchen or living room. For the time being this provides enough space but as Bike a Bee grows Jana has hope for her own garden in order to teach and host classes. "I also really like the idea of having a honey house. A sticky, messy place with no AC where beekeepers can harvest. Ideally that would include the garden and maybe a storefront where the honey is sold."

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The Secret Sauce

Bike a Bee honey is making its debut this summer. The honey is chemical free and draws flavors from Chicago’s abundant flower sources including woodland phlox, white clover and bluebells. A hint of surprise comes with every batch, as each hive location will produce its own unique flavor.

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The Business Plan

Current Bike a Bee is working to working to become a 501(c)(3) organization and relies solely on volunteer labor and community donations. Proceeds from goods bought on the online store go directly to building more hives and providing educational tools. Jana says "We will never stop doing it all by bicycle!" Luckily local bicycle company, Ciclo Urbano, lends Bullitt cargo bikes for all the heavy lifting, allowing Jana and team to transfer and build new hives.

So what's the result of all this pollen hoarding, learning, sharing and biking? Good calf muscles, obviously, but also really delicious honey and a valuable educational resource for Chicago's local food scene.

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6 Quick Questions for Jana Kinsman

1. Favorite online resources for your kitchen?
I love any blogs that are about foraging and wild edibles. I read them when I come across them but I don’t have any that I consistently use. Hunger and Thirst is a favorite.

I tend to stay away from beekeeping blogs. There are a lot of opinions and methods out there that are all valid, but as a beekeeper just starting out I think it's important to have a solid understanding of bees, a great mentor, and the willingness to try things. Too many choices and internet advice will just get you overwhelmed.

2. The one thing you can't live without?
My bicycle. And when I say "bicycle" I mean "bicycles" because I have three that I all love equally. They're my legs, my power, my transport, my mighty trucks.

3. If you could spend a day with anyone, who would it be and why?
My friend Michael Thompson from the Chicago Honey Co-op. He's been a beekeeper for 40+ years and also used to run a landscaping business. We've spent days together before, and they're always my favorite. We shoot the shit about trees, plants, food, our favorite Chicago folks, and of course beekeeping.

4. What's in your Google reader?
I don't have one! I rely on my twitter feed to keep me updated on stuff.

5. If you won a million dollars, what would you do with it?
I'd pay off all of my debt and my siblings' debt, buy property in Chicago, give myself a nice and cushiony savings account, then donate the rest to NFP's and organizations that i admire. 

6. What's the best way to taste your honey?
Straight out of the jar, on a spoon. For comparison fun, try it next to wildflower honey from Michigan, for example. Chicago honey is truly special. Once you know and love it, have it on some crusty bread with really yellow butter.

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Thanks, Jana!

(Images: Lucy Hewett)