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A Deep Dive Into A Milwaukee Rooftop Apiary

Bees first began to creep into Charlie Koenen’s life in 2002. Today his previous careers in computer programming and consulting might as well belong to someone else altogether.

Koenen is a beevangelist through and through. “I never would have predicted the path, but the importance is really astonishing - a beehive when it’s operating. That’s the amazement I want to give everybody,” he says.

In 2009 Koenen introduced a system called the Beepod. He says it works with bees naturally by spreading the colony out sideways, rather than up as it would be in traditional stacked boxes. His aim was to use the system to educate people about bees.

Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio
One of three beehive systems at Redeemer Lutheran Church. This is the traditional stacked Langstroth variety.

The Beepod is one of three different systems atop Redeemer Lutheran Church’s small rooftop terrace.

As if by cue, a visitor appears. Susan Martyn lives in Toledo, Ohio now, but her husband was pastor here back in the 1970s. She’s fascinated by the bees – but fearful at the same time.

“I’m not going to be stung am I? Because I’m allergic,” Martyn says.

Charlie Koenen assures Martyn she’s safe. “Just be a tree. Stand still and nobody will mind,” he advises.

Martyn proceeds to take photos, from a distance. “I want to take this back to my church at home and inspire them,” she says.

Although he would like to ensure the future of honeybees everywhere, Koenen says he’s learned something amazing about how well honeybees can do in urban settings.

Monoculture agriculture, Koenen says, is hard on bees. “Having one type of food in a massive amount is great for business (agriculture) but it isn’t very good for the bees,” he explains.

He’s finding that honeybees thrive in the city. “In the inner city there are fewer people there are less people pouring chemicals on things, there’s less chem lawn. So my hives inside the city are the best hives I have, the most thriving hives,” says Koenen. “If that’s not an example that some of the things we’re doing out in the field where they’re dying out in the field, I don’t know what is.”

Koenen believes it’s important to save and preserve genetics. “... And bees to know the old way when winter came and seasons changed. Not to get loaded up onto trucks and driven to California or Florida and keep working all year round. That’s the reason why we have bees in the city,” he says.

Over time, Koenen has partnered with groups including Core El Centro in the Walker’s Point neighborhood to nurture hives on its rooftop garden; various Milwaukee County Parks golf courses and Marquette University. It recently installed a pod atop its state-of-the-art engineering building.

Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio
Pastor Lisa Bates-Froiland harvests the pepper.

Redeemer Lutheran’s pastor Lisa Bates-Froiland pops up before Sunday service to pluck Redeemer Lutheran’s first piece of produce – a plump pepper. It would be incorporated into the meal served up to those who might otherwise not eat.

Bates-Froiland says before the bees, there was no life on this rooftop. Now there are pots of flowers, vegetables and herbs growing.

“This is life and abundance and hope. And especially in a little piece of the city that sometimes seems dry and tired and past it’s prime,” says Bates-Froiland. “We’re saying things are cycling back and its time for a renaissance, even here at 19th and Wisconsin Avenue.”

The bee symbolism doesn’t stop there. As their service ends, Bates-Froiland leads a procession out and around to the church’s back lot, where she is about to bless an artist at work.

Parishioner Dave Rothe joins the line.

“The bees have really brought a special aspect to our whole congregation. It’s a group effort and it’s something so different and unique and it sort brings life to the church,” Rothe says.

Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

Local artist Adam Nilson is creating more public excitement on the church’s south-facing wall, that had for decades been a crumbling eyesore.

Appropriately, Nilson is painting a giant bee mural.

"We came up with the design just by utilizing the age and distressed look of the wall and we’re going to take advantage and it’s going to make sense visually,” he explains. “It’s such high visibility in the Marquette area. There are so many people who see this, I really want to give it my full effort and make it the best piece I’ve ever done.”

A large honeycomb-filled cross has already taken shape.

Nilson’s son Jackson here to assist him.

“It’s very amazing how an old, worn-down wall has turned into a masterpiece like this,” he says.

Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio
Artist Adam Nilson and his son Jackson will be working on the mural over the next few weeks.

It’s hard to tell who is the prouder Nilson - son or father. “This is a big summer for him," says Adam Nilson. "This is the first summer he’s by my side on job sites. Hopefully every summer when he’s done with school, he’ll have work and he’ll know what to do."

Sounds like a couple of good worker bees to me.

NOTE: An early installment of Lake Effect's summer series Full Plate featured recent Marquette University grad Maggie Stangl.  She shared her apiary experience at Redeemer Lutheran Church.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.