Bees’ honey-making ebbs atop Harper Court as summer starts to fade

University of Chicago Medical School student and Phoenix Farms Head Beekeeper Nick Lyon checks the hives on top of the Harper Court building. -Aaron Gettinger

Staff Writer

The University of Chicago (U. of C.) may not be a bastion of agricultural education, but Nick Lyon and Phoenix Farms hope to change that perception at least a little bit.

Lyon, a medical student and Naperville, Illinois native who also got his bachelor’s degree at the U. of C., and his cousin, undergraduate John Havlik, founded Phoenix Farms, a registered student organization, a year ago. The club farms a plot of land on-campus near the Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave., and keeps three beehives on top of Harper Court.

Lyon got into beekeeping three years ago, alarmed at the well-publicized plight of bees around the world blamed on invasive mites, climate change and pesticides. As someone with “quirky” hobbies — he pole vaulted and owned a hedgehog — he found that tending hives suited him.

Those beekeeping on the Harper Court rooftop must wear harnesses wired to the roof, per OSHA regulations, and thick suits, per common sense. As he pumped smoke into what he called “the most gentle” hive, explaining that it prevents the residents from emitting alarm pheromones. Lyon said some keepers of exceedingly gentle hives do it in shorts and T-shirts.

The day was warm, not hot, with a fresh breeze that carried a wisp of briskness, barely perceptible but there, felt for the first time in months.

The Bud Billiken Parade was weeks ago. After Labor Day, Chicago Public Schools are back in session. The University of Chicago students will come back en masse later this month. Some trees have taken on a slight fringe of red or yellow.

Fall is coming, and the bees 12 stories up atop Harper Court know it.

In an age of climate change, the temperature will fluctuate wildly through the solstice and into winter, killing some bees. Witnessing the art of beekeeping, one suddenly understands why vegans have a hot dispute over the ethics of eating honey. As Lyon lovingly, slowly and constantly took the hive apart, checked the combs and put it back together, some of the 60,000 or so residents didn’t move quickly enough and had the life pressed out of them.

The worker bees moved the tiny corpses away from the hive. When the lows dip deep enough, the hive’s male drones, who only function to mate with the queen, will be shown the door, dying unneeded while the women huddle together for warmth.

Harper Hives yielded 90 pounds, or 10 gallons, of honey over the last week in August from combs stripped of their beeswax seals and spun in a centrifuge. Phoenix Farms sold it to the Grounds of Being cafe in the U. of C. Divinity School basement, 1025 E. 58th St. They hope to sell the honey at farmers’ markets or to local restaurants someday.

Bees on the surface of a honeycomb, cells capped as larvae develop inside. -Aaron Gettinger

The hives are checked every two weeks to see how much honey is being produced and to ensure the queen is laying eggs. This is down from every week early in the summer, when the queen repopulates and workers go out for the season’s first pollen and nectar.

The bees search for pollen around a five mile radius, and Lyon said hives can go on buildings up to 21 stories tall.

“I like to joke that the bees have the best real estate in Hyde Park,” said Lyon, in sight of bombshell views of Lake Michigan and the Loop. “They don’t even know how good they have it!”

Some of the water must evaporate from the honey before it’s bottled; otherwise, it would ferment.

Lyon and Havlik, an avid gardener, recruited all around the University for Phoenix Farm members. Currently, the membership is around 20 or 30, community members are also welcomed to join. The garden itself is headed by a doctoral student in chemistry. Booth School students are tasked with selling Harper Hives’ honey.

Phoenix Farms’ long-term goal is for the farm and hives to be in the same place. Havlik would also like to have a “food forest” of fruit trees, berry bushes and perennial plants. In the meantime, Lyon said Harper Court management has been very helpful.

As Lyon went down into the hive, the honey got darker and the bees got louder — and angrier. The combs began to be populated by larvae. Lyon saw eggs in some of the cells and knew the queen was alive and well. The bees have also begun storing more honey in the hives’ bottom compartments.

“That’s just them getting prepared for the winter,” said Lyon. The non-queens’ life expectancy is only around two weeks at this point of the year, as the work of preparing for the change of seasons takes a toll on their tiny bodies.

At the garden plot, Cameron Gudobba, an undergraduate studying neuroscience from Metro Detroit and Phoenix Farms’ community outreach director, gave a tour in the late afternoon shadows, which have been falling earlier and earlier as of late.

The Phoenix Farms garden on the University of Chicago campus near the Smart Museum, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave. – Aaron Gettinger

Phoenix Farms relocated plots here this year from Jackson Park. The plot on campus was unmaintained and ripe for development; now it is flanked by tall rows of corn stalks and “second generation Hyde Park sunflowers,” grown from seeds the tallest and strongest that Phoenix Farms grew last year. They will do the same this year.

“The nice thing about it is you only have to buy it once,” said Gudobba. “And after that, you can basically keep replanting with most of these things.”

A caterpillar climbed on some fennel as Gudobba pointed out the milkweed, grown for monarch butterflies. Volunteer tomato plants and marigolds came up on their own.

Gudobba said the year was a learning experience to see what would and would not take in the plot. The grapevines did not yield fruit. The cucumber plant either scorched or waned as its season ended and the big strawberry harvest has long since concluded.

The sorrel this late in the season tastes as sour as a lemon.

Once more established, Gudobba said Phoenix Farms hopes to donate its produce to food pantries. They hope to open more gardens in Washington Park in the future. And this winter, Phoenix Farms will apply for grants and might hold a lecture series about urban gardening and beekeeping.

To join the Phoenix Farms membership team, email