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There’s a buzz building in Shedd’s gardens

Horticultural manager Christine Nye checks beehive recent additiShedd Aquarium sustainability program. | Dale Bowman~For Sun-Times Media

Horticultural manager Christine Nye checks a beehive, a recent addition to the Shedd Aquarium sustainability program. | Dale Bowman~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: July 6, 2012 10:31AM

Around pansies and past collard greens, I tried to step the same as Christine Nye. The horticultural manager for the Shedd Aquarium was taking me for a close-up of a pair of beehives in a side garden.

There are levels to bees in the gardens at the Shedd that help us understand modern wilds, especially in an urban setting.

In a new partnership with the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance’s volunteer beekeepers, the Shedd is incorporating bees into its sustainability program.

‘‘Bees are a perfect educational opportunity for us,’’ said Meg Matthews, sustainability coordinator.

Just feet away from where Nye was preparing to smoke and open the hives, swarms of school kids walked past on May field trips. Bees flew around and on the flowers and plants, just inches from us, doing bee work of pollinating.

‘‘These guys are so docile,’’ Matthews said.

Nye wasn’t sure how many, but the Shedd has hundreds of species of plants in organic gardens. I never knew the Shedd had such rich gardens, partly because our family visits in winter when we are simply hoping the line moves quickly enough that we get inside quickly.

When I was there 10 days ago, the gardens were a riot of color from the flowers and shapes from the vegetables.

‘‘Our goal is to provide most of our enrichment food,’’ Matthews said.

That’s food given as a special treat. Most goes to the herbivorous fishes in ‘‘Amazon Rising’’ in the form of fruits and vegetables several times a week. The animal program animals — blue-tongued skinks, Cuban iguanas, prehensile-tail skinks and tegus — eat greens, berries, parsley and squash.

It’s grown in the pockets of gardens scattered around on every piece of ground.

There’s lettuce (when the weather is right) for Nickel the green sea turtle; squashes and sweet potato for suckermouth catfish; prickly pear blossoms for Bob the blue iguana; berries, greens, flowers, melons and carrots for the tortoises; parsley, berries and greens for Lovely, the Malaysian sailfin lizard; and herbs, berries, squash and melon for the Titi monkeys, Goeldi monkey and pygmy marmoset.

Suckermouth catfish deserve proper names, too. Sushi? Salad?

As we wandered around one garden, Nye said, ‘‘I don’t know, I may get stung.’’

She said it with a smile. I suspect she’s more at home in the gardens outside than the offices inside. In other words, she’s the kind of person I traipse behind gladly.

And I had a chance to see how the Shedd is building bird gardens and using rain water. All of these practices are also incorporated into programming for visitors.

At one point, Nye and Matthews led me through the bowels of the Shedd — think the ripe fish-stink on hands after a day of catfishing — and to the building gardens on the northeast side.

I mentioned that we were just feet from one of the best fishing spots for smallmouth bass in Chicago. I thought Shedd staff should know.

When summer comes and the gardens are in full bloom, there’s excess food. It goes a few blocks away to Pacific Garden Mission, the fabled, nearly 150-year-old homeless shelter. That’s a circle of sustainability that strikes me as right.

It was time.

As Matthews walked me back to my car, more kids streamed in. She bent to pick up blowing trash, an act from the heart.

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