"Live from The Hive" is what Leonard Rau, owner of The Hive Supply Company, titles his talks when he teaches groups about his passion: bees. He is as busy as one as the honey-dipping holiday of Rosh Hashanah approaches.
Among his audiences are Jewish groups, including his own congregation, Anshe Emet Synagogue in Lakeview. Fellow congregants and friends ask him all kinds of questions about bees - through a Jewish lens.
"They want to know what the blessing is for honey, and what makes it kosher," he said. "They ask about the mentions of honey in the Torah, as in the story of Samson. The expression 'Land of Milk and Honey' [though] may refer to a date paste."
Rau, who lives in the North Center neighborhood of Chicago, first became interested in honey while traveling for work as a brand strategist, noticing that honey from different parts of the world varied wildly in color and flavor. Rau also had a friend who kept bees, who encouraged Rau to follow suit.
He started with one hive, and soon expanded to three.
Five years later, Rau has 250 hives, all around Chicago, containing some 100,000 bees. His Hive Supply Company store offers beekeeping supplies and classes, and sells varietals of honey, beeswax candles, and gifts for kids.
"The honey from our hives is for use, for sale, or for education," he said. The honey is used and sold everywhere from distilleries and cider presses to bakeries and cheese shops; some of these merchants keep his hives on their roofs. He also partners with a firm that installs rooftop gardens on industrial and commercial buildings.
Aside from his talks, and his hives at Shedd Aquarium, Rau is setting up a "hivecam," on his website to aid his educational efforts. "It's a way for people to get close to animals they might be scared of," he said. When kids learn about bees, he said, they might grow up to be beekeepers or even entomologists.
Rau is still a student of beekeeping himself. Which flowers the pollen is collected from is only one factor, he discovered. Every aspect of the weather, from heat to rain, is another. The "micro-climates" around each hive are so specific, honey will differ between hives only a few feet apart.
While there are many varieties of honey, there are also varieties of bees: "There are some 40,000 bee species in the world, but only eight make colonies we can farm for honey."
Honey is unique among foods, Rau added, because it is the only thing made by animals that we consume with no processing. It also requires no preservation; in fact, honey found in tombs of pharaohs is still edible after 5,000 years, according to Rau.
"Even matzah doesn't last that long," he quipped.
While it is work, Rau said he considers beekeeping relaxing. After all, the bees do a lot of the work themselves: "You can start with just some insects in a box," he said, "and soon find it filled with a whole structure of beeswax."
Also, he added, "bees are my only clients who don't talk back."
Still, they do communicate with him. "They learn to recognize my behavior, and I see patterns in their behavior," he said. "I can understand if a colony is healthy by how the bees shake their booty."
Ultimately, Rau said he is fascinated by how bees form communities- and has discovered how being a beekeeper, like being a bee, is a "socially minded enterprise."
He's learned a lot about people, he said, from working with bees.