News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 29, 2012

Keeping the bees

Vigo County native manages the beekeeping operation at Garfield Park Conservatory on Chicago’s west side

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — As a kid, Naaman Gambill peeked into his dad’s beehives.

“It’s amazing every time you go in [the hive],” said Gambill, now 27, “because it’s a city unto itself.”

The word “city” packs a bit of irony. Gambill grew up on his family’s small farm south of Terre Haute, but now he and his wife, Ashley, reside and work in Chicago. “If you would’ve told me I’d be living in a big city like this, I’d have told you you’re crazy,” he said, chuckling.

The irony doesn’t stop there. Amid the metropolitan setting, Gambill is still peering into beehives … for a living. He manages the beekeeping operation at the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago’s west side.

He wears the title of “greening programs coordinator” and is employed by the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, a nonprofit agency that supports the city-owned park, but Gambill does a lot of teaching to many of the 130,000 people who annually visit its 14 acres of gardens and wildlife.

Which brings the story back to his Hoosier homeland.

Gambill got his early education in the Vigo County schools, and then earned a secondary education degree at Indiana University, where he met Ashley. They made a pact “that whoever got the better teaching job, we would move there,” he recalled.

His wife landed a position in Chicago, they moved, Naaman secured a job, too, and then both lost those jobs through reductions-in-force. Ashley found a spot at a private school in Chicago, Naaman heard about the conservatory job while volunteering there, and he took it.

Nearly two years later, he’s enjoying life.

“It is a fantastic job,” he said. “I get to keep bees, grow plants, and walk around this wonderful place.”

The conservatory opened in 1908. It features eight indoor display houses and three outdoor gardens, with more than 1,300 plant species indoors and another 300 species outdoors. The bees, with their pollinating virtues, keep the ecological system flowing. Gambill maintains 15 hives, organizes a team of 30 community volunteers who adopt and care for hives at the park, narrates and demonstrates for tours of students and adults, teaches urban beekeeping, and oversees two new hives at the popular Shedd Aquarium across town.

“Naaman’s fantastic,” said John Paterson, director of programs and interpretation for the alliance. “He’s a fantastic worker, and has such an innate interest in these urban agricultural issues. And being an educator gives him a unique perspective.”

In fact, there’s a waiting list to serve as a volunteer in Gambill’s beekeeping program, said Mattie Wilson, volunteer coordinator for the alliance.

“So he’s doing OK,” she said, understatedly.

Gambill’s passion for teaching and nature connect to his Vigo County roots. He sees the city of Chicago embracing the values of agriculture and wildlife, which he learned while popping open his dad’s beehives, eating tomatoes straight out of their garden, or fishing. “The more that I’m around the urban environment, I really appreciate the upbringing my parents gave me,” he said. “You really could be Tom Sawyer.”

Chicago’s hip attitude toward ecology gives Gambill a more at-home feeling. He credits former Mayor Richard M. Daley for adopting “green city” policies. After manufacturing industries vacated factories on Chicago’s west side, the city transitioned the area toward a greener look. The conservatory and the bees benefit.

“Because Chicago is a very green city, bees tend to do very well,” Gambill said. “Bees are kind of in vogue right now, because people are conscious of their plight.”

Nationwide, bee populations suffered declines in the past six years for a variety of reasons, according to researchers. The primary suspected causes include the cumulative effect of farm pesticides, parasites and “colony collapse disorder,” a phenomenon in which the worker bees suddenly disappear. The effect of this summer’s drought and intense heat on the bees is yet to be seen, said Candace Minster, garden manager at the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice in Vigo County.

“Not in my experience with bees have we had a season like this,” Minster said, “so I don’t know what will happen.”

In Chicago, the mild spring temperatures had Gambill optimistic. “Around March and April, we were thinking, ‘Wow, this could be a banner year,’” he said. Since then, he and the volunteers have noticed “a dropoff” in the bees’ ability to keep up their routine.

Still, their contributions to the plants and wildlife at the park, and elsewhere, is vital and fascinating.

Bees produce honey and wax, and “figure out the most efficient configuration [for their honeycomb] is a hexagon,” Gambill explained. (If those comb holes were circular, side-by-side, they would leave small gaps.) A strong hive contains 60,000 to 80,000 bees. Each colony includes a queen (a fertile female); workers (infertile females that perform the laborious tasks of preparing food for others and the queen, guarding the hive, and heating and cooling it); and drones (whose sole purpose is to mate with the queen, though only one in 1,000 realizes that royal opportunity), according to the American Beekeeping Federation.

Approximately one-third of food consumed in the U.S. is affected by bees. Crops pollinated by the winged creatures include cucumbers, melons, cherries, apples, alfalfa, onions, blueberries, cranberries and dozens of others.

Gambill passes on that message to visitors to the conservatory hives.

He’s also learned how to not get stung. Bees don’t like stinging people, he said, because they die after doing so. They’re simply protecting the colony. To avoid that situation, beekeepers typically “smoke” the bees. The tactic disrupts the bees’ pheromones, through which they communicate. Smoke also triggers an evolutionary trait in bees, Gambill said, telling them to eat quickly before an approaching fire damages their food source. The smoke disorients the bees, and leaves them too full to bother with stinging people.

Thus, “I really only get stung when I screw up,” he said.

Whether he’s explaining the “smoke” tactic, visiting an elementary school classroom, or teaching local adults how to maintain their own beehives right in the heart of Chicago, Gambill enjoys spreading the word about bees and introducing longtime Chicagoans to a facility that was often unknown to them.

“It’s basically an oasis on the west side,” he said, “that’s been here for over 100 years.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or