Honey produced by the bees atop the Free Library's Parkway Central Branch is used in classes at the Culinary Literacy Center, and sold to the public. (Asha Prihar/Thetelegraphfield)

Philly’s libraries house a lot more than books. At the various branches, you can find things like cake pans, hiking backpacks, musical instruments, and even neckties.

Here’s another unexpected item for the list: honey bees.

Two branches of the Free Library of Philadelphia are home to apiaries, aka collections of beehives. One is on the roof of the flagship Parkway Central location, and the other is at the Richmond Library in Port Richmond.

The Parkway hives have been there for several years in partnership with Philadelphia Bee Co., a local business that does swarm removal, sells bee products made in the city, and hosts event programming on pollinators.

It’s just one piece of the Free Library’s broad approach to education.

“Honey is an amazing teaching tool,” said Abigail Weil, a librarian at the Culinary Literacy Center, the Free Library’s food education hub that’s headquartered at Parkway Central but does food-related programming at branches across the city.

The “everyday substance,” Weil said, is a great starting point for talking about the Earth’s ecosystem. It’s easy to transport, and full of potential lessons in everything from science to ecology, labor, feminism, and world religion.

The Philadelphia Bee Co.–Free Library partnership started at the Richmond branch, according to company owner and founder Don Shump.

He was called in to consult on relocating the feral hive that used to live over the location’s front entrance, per the library’s blog. That colony ended up dying before it could successfully be relocated, but the branch decided to embrace bees moving forward.

The branch's librarian and resident beekeeper, Amy Thatcher, now keeps an observation hive inside the library — don’t worry, it’s behind glass — where patrons can get a close-up view of the insects at work, plus two outside. The honey Thatcher harvests is sold at a low cost to patrons to fund upkeep of the hives, as well as used in programming.

Bee hives atop the Free Library's Parkway Central Branch might not look like much, but they produce delicious honey. (Asha Prihar/Thetelegraphfield)

Parkway Central’s rooftop apiary, installed in 2017, usually holds between 5 and 10 beehives, Shump said, which he checks on weekly.

Each hive tends to have around 60,000 bees, so they’ve had “as many as … a quarter of a million bees on the library,” Shump said.

Each hive produces an average of 30 lbs. of honey, per Shump, usually harvested in early July. Some of it is sold to the public, with $2 per jar sold going directly to the library.

The Free Library’s Culinary Literacy Center also uses the honey when it hosts bee-related programming with Shump, Weil said. The sessions are popular, and would probably fill up even if they were held once a month instead of once a year, she speculated.

One past program called “Bees and Cheese” offered the chance to taste honey collected from different parts of the city to learn “how what the bees eat directly affects how the honey tastes,” per Weil, paired with cheeses donated by Dietz and Watson.

Don Shump of the Philadelphia Bee Co. sells honey made on rooftops around the city, including the Parkway Central Library. (Courtesy Free Library)

This summer the library is hosting a different bee program geared toward families. The June 10 event will show off a hand-drawn map of the Hundred Acre Woods from Winnie the Pooh — part of a new map exhibition at Parkway Central — and will take families to visit the beehives, learn about how they work, have snacks, and hear a story about honey. (Pre-register here.)

The library-based apiaries and related programming are a complement to the educational piece of Philadelphia Bee Co.’s mission. “We're about spreading the good word of the bees,” Shump said, “and so the library is a great venue to do that.”

They’re also part of the way the Free Library tries to reach and serve the community, Weil said.

“As libraries have evolved to fit the needs of their communities — especially diverse communities, working class communities, urban communities — a library is so much more than books,” Weil said.

She pointed to internet access, online resources, resume advice, and children’s centers, plus the first-ever public library teaching kitchen in the U.S., where the CLC hosts English-language learning cooking classes and other events.

Food, she said, is a great way to “get people through the door, always,” which is also why it’s a “great way to teach difficult concepts.”

“If people come through the door because they want to taste honey, but then they walk out having learned all this stuff about how a beehive operates, that's a win,” Weil said. “And that's really what the public library’s here to do: to nurture curiosity and to encourage people to follow whatever their interests are and whatever that will lead to.”

Have an idea for something you’d like to see in the Culinary Literacy Center? Send an email to [email protected].


Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify the number of hives at the Richmond branch and who is in charge of them.

Asha Prihar is a general assignment reporter at Thetelegraphfield. She has previously written for several daily newspapers across the Midwest, and she covered Pennsylvania state government and politics for The...