A bee wrangler shows you how to mind your own beeswax
From activists to politicians, everybody loves to talk about the promise of green jobs. But in reality, who the heck actually has a green job, and how do you get one? In our new column, “I Have a Green Job,” Grist will be regularly profiling one of the lucky employed who has landed a job in the new green economy, or a green job in the old economy.
Know someone with a green job and a good story? Tell us about them!
Rachel HewittMeet Michael Thompson, 62, professional bee wrangler and co-founder of Chicago Honey Co-op, a Chicago-based agricultural cooperative that’s dedicated to chemical-free beekeeping, growing community, and entrepreneurial dreams of garlic.
Q. How does the Chicago Honey Co-op work?
A. You can buy a hive and put it there and learn beekeeping, or we can take care of the hive for you. The only rule we have really is that you can’t use any chemicals in your hives. We have a pretty strict rule about that. We also have a community farm there.
Q. What were you hoping to accomplish with the co-op?
A. Producing delicious, healthy food — that was our first goal. The other goal that we set out for ourselves was to have a business that could support itself. And the other thing we wanted to do was job training in an area of Chicago where people really need jobs.
Q. What long and winding road led you to where you are today — as director of the Chicago Honey Co-op?
A. I’d say it started in southern Kansas when I was a child. I had an early need to find out how to grow things, so I asked these matriarchs. They were in their 70s or 80s at the time. They taught me how to grow food, and by the time I was 10, I was growing tomatoes and dragging them around in wagons to the neighbors and selling them at 10 cents a pound.
By the time I was 12, I had badgered my parents for a bee hive because I’d read about it in an encyclopedia, and they bought me a beehive as a present for my birthday.
Q. Are your friends jealous of your job?
A. Yeah, often. A friend, Diane, just kept saying, “You’re so lucky. You have such great luck in your life.” And so I had to admit that I do have a lot of luck, but I’d like to blame it on those people who taught me when I was a child that it was all right to grow plants and food when you’re seven years old.
Q. Do you see yourself doing this kind of work for the rest of your life?
A. I do. I made a commitment to myself to grow food on a larger scale for the rest of my life. One of the dreams I have is to produce more garlic. I see there are niches that can be filled, and that’s the trick to entrepreneurship. Find that niche, and not only can you make a little money — I don’t know if it will support you forever — but it will help support you and it will make you happy.
Q. What about your bee farm sets you apart from conventional beekeeping? What pushed you in that direction?
A. I was a bee inspector for the state of Illinois when I was 21. If you find a bee yard with this disease called American foulbrood, you have kill the bees. After about eight months I ran into a nearly abandoned apiary, and I had to do that. I had to use a spray aerosol can of cyanide. I smelled that, and I quit the next day.
So when we decided to start [the Chicago Honey Co-op], there was no question among the three of us beekeepers about chemicals. At the time it was very radical, even eight years ago, to not use chemicals in your hives. But we knew it was harming the bees and the environment. Also, we believe in being part of a community. We don’t just do it because we want to get to market, and we don’t just do it because we know we can produce delicious food. We want to pass it on to others.
Q. Could you talk a little bit about the education and the job training that the Chicago Honey Co-op offers?
A. The job training started first with a grant from the Illinois Department of Corrections — not usually a grant-giving organization. And they somehow were convinced by the three of us beekeepers that this was a good idea: a small business doing job training with people who had just gotten out of prison and couldn’t find jobs because of that.
Q. What part of your job makes you the most hopeful about creating a more sustainable world?
A. The best part of the job these days is the young people who have become interested in what we do, to have them show up and explain to me what the world’s about. That kind of cultural exchange that happens among different generations — there is nothing like it. It is so rich, so important. That’s how I started out and now I’m in that place to be the mentor.
Q. What do you think a green job is and why do you think your job is one of them?
A. I wish somebody would come up with a different term. I like names of things that say what they are and this one is definitely a stretch and always has been for me. I guess a green job contributes to the health of the earth and to the people and the animals on that earth. We decided to actually produce something tangible and delicious, but something you could hold in your hand that wasn’t just an idea or a service.
And why do I consider this job [a green one]? Because we build soil every day. We’ve also been helping with what people are eating in the neighborhood and what we’re eating at home. And we’re teaching.