A cracked and overgrown concrete slab on an economically depressed block of West Fillmore Street in North Lawndale wouldn’t seem like an appealing place to set up shop for rows of bee hives.

But to urban beekeeper Michael Thompson, a deserted parking lot of the old Sears Roebuck and Co. held the promise of sweet returns.

Over the last six summers, the Chicago Honey Co-op has grown into one of the largest urban beekeeping operations in the country. Its apiary-the location where it keeps its bee hives-covers much of the parking lot of Sears’ former West Side headquarters.

Chicago Honey, though, is small by honey production standards. This season, it expects to have 80 producing hives. Most honey producers typically rely on about 300 hives to support themselves financially.

The average hive can yield about 40 pounds of honey beyond what the bees need each season, but some hives could produce much more or nothing at all.

“We’ve had good years and we’ve had mediocre years,” said Thompson, who founded the co-op in 2003 and has since seen it grow into a money-generating, small business.

The co-op, which has about 35 members, sells its honey at Chicago’s Green City Market and the Oak Park and Logan Square farmers markets, in addition to local stores, restaurants and on the Internet. But last season, it lost several hives, which reduced the amount of honey it had for the year. The co-op instead promoted its honey-based candles and body products to make up for the shortage of honey, but its online market didn’t grow as quickly as it had hoped.

Some of its purchasers, like Marion Street Cheese Market in Oak Park, ran out of honey after the end of last season.

“As soon as they can get us more stock, I definitely think we’ll see sales,” said Cristeana Bastian, retail and operations manager for the Oak Park store and café.

Many of Bastian’s customers like the co-op’s honey because it fits with their ideas about socially-responsible and locally-grown products.

“People ask for them by name,” Bastian said.

The co-op is able to charge a higher price for its honey than retail grocery stores because the honey is local and chemical free, said member Sydney Barton, who works with the group on business and marketing.

Its honey production season kicked off in early April. The group received its bees from Texas-based B. Weaver Apiaries, and by July, the co-op’s newest line of local honey will be flowing to Chicago consumers. The group also sells its products online through its Web site: chicagohoneycoop.com.

The co-op had sales of about $60,000 in 2007, and it estimates that it made about the same last year, thanks to about $30,000 in grants and donations.

“What we’re supported on is amazingly low,” Barton said. “A lot of small businesses might have better access to capital, but partly because of our setup and mission, we don’t have more traditional lenders or investors interested.”

Sweet successes

A strong start during its first season in summer 2003 helped Chicago Honey gain momentum. The founding co-op members started with 40 hives that year, but affiliations with nonprofits allowed they to save money.

“Once you have a hive, there’s no stopping it,” Thompson said. “We actually saw $28,000 [by 2004] and that was some kind of miracle for us.”

Since then, it has managed to stay in the black by hiring only a few employees, varying by season. The majority of its expenses are bees and honey jars, Barton said.

It also saves with low facilities expenses. Much of the production is done in warehouse space loaned by a co-op member. The hives sit on the old Sears property, owned by land developer, Partnership Independence Fillmore LLC. It allows the co-op to rent the property at an affordable rate until it is ready to develop the land.

Part-owner Mark Ross said he was attracted by the co-op’s focus on job training. They received some workforce development aid from nonprofits to teach clients beekeeping and other types of agriculture. The co-op also operates a community garden next to its apiary, where anyone can grow vegetables, as long as they don’t use any chemicals that could harm their bees.

Though next year’s honey is still a buzz-beat away, the co-op brought some of its reserves to a booth at The Garfield Park Conservatory’s Green & Growing urban gardening fair in late April, kicking off its market season.

“I like honey, and if it makes me a little less miserable this August, it’ll be worth it,” said Andrew McComb, 23, who eats local honey to alleviate his allergy symptoms.

Though the co-op is optimistic about this summer’s production, its members are looking for ways to grow beyond the traditional market setting. Barton has been working to increase its online presence. Chicago Honey is on Facebook.com, Twitter.com, and has its own blog (chicagohoneycoop.blogspot.com) to maintain relationships with customers through the winter. It also alerts them about events, like the co-op’s beekeeping classes.

Chicago Honey’s sales have been increasing every month this year compared with the same time last year. But the co-op wants to be able to grow and to pay its employees a higher wage, Barton said.

For now, Thompson is focused on providing quality honey while staying on track financially.

“This is maybe my old-fashioned approach, but I’m not interested in a big loan or a big investment, and I don’t want to be in debt to make this business work,” he insisted. “I get paid $10 an hour, but I’m not so concerned about that. This is a labor of love.”