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Alison McAfee | Honey Bee Hub

Hives for Humanity: Bringing new life to marginalized communities

Walking along East Hastings in Vancouver, my stomach turns at the blunt contrast between poverty and luxury. It never gets easier to see. Homeless people sit, heads bowed to cardboard change cups, kitty corner to L’Abattoir – a classy, French-inspired West coast restaurant. So close, but untouchable. Those who live in the Downtown Eastside face incredibly challenging socio-economic barriers, yet their capacity for generosity and understanding has inspired a Canadian mother-daughter team to grow roots there. Sarah and Julia Common are using beehives as a hub to bring life and colour to Hastings. In 2012, Hives for Humanity was born.

Starting with a single hive, their first apiary resides to this day in the Hastings Folk Garden – right beside the supervised injection site, where people with chronic drug addictions go to safely use. From day one, innate curiosity about the charismatic honey bees drew people in. “I never forgot that day when Sarah came to check the hives at our building and invited me to come over and join the group,” says Gafar Yousif, who lives in the Lux housing complex for homeless people just one block from the Folk Garden. “The community response was inspiring,” Sarah (Julia’s daughter) reminisces. “We saw the bees creating hope and fostering self-worth, with potential for social enterprise. We knew we had to keep going.”

Hives for Humanity offers therapeutic apiaries and gardens as channels to transfer core values – respect, self-worth, inclusivity, education, trust, and opportunity – to at-risk community members, while giving them transferable employment skills where possible. Sarah and Julia began organizing beekeeping mentorship programs, apiculture workshops, and other activities around the culture of the beehive, all operating near East Hastings. One anonymous Eastside community member perfectly summarized their mission: “There is life beyond drug addiction, prostitution and alcoholism. This work helps you make that shift. You see yourself differently.” For many people, this is their first step away from the margins.

Sarah and Julia never expected that their experiment in the Folk Garden would mature into the entity it is today. Nor did they think their influence would extend beyond Vancouver. But now, they manage over one hundred honey bee colonies and after consulting with community centers in Victoria and Halifax, similar honey bee-based initiatives in at-risk communities are spanning coast to coast. With Canada’s opioid crisis in full swing, Hives for Humanity is now poised to have a greater impact than ever before.


An active pitch – to be continued!

Insights into the life of a Varroa mite

Sitting at my microscope, the sweat in my eyes was making it hard to focus. Ninety-five degrees Farenheit (35oC) is fine for mites, but not for Canadians. I dumped a tube full of mites on a Petri dish to sort under the lens. Adult males were the first to be gathered – they were easy to recognize, with their tear-dropped, slightly tanned body and spidery legs. They were also the fastest to run away, up and over the sides of my dish. As they made a break for it, I picked up each one with a small, soft paint brush and added them to a labelled tube until I reached fifty, then filled two more.

Some of the mites had beautiful black patterns visible through their oval, translucent exoskeleton, pulsing like a heartbeat within the stillness of its shell. Mesmerized, I recalled seeing something similar in the Cyrtarachne spiders of Singapore. The little pudgy-legged protonymphs were my favorite, though. They were so cute, I almost forgot how destructive they can be. Continue reading “Insights into the life of a Varroa mite”

How Beakerhead showed me the true spirit of SciComm

The tumbling mist obscured my view of the impressive peaks overlooking the Squamish Valley. I had never been to Squamish for anything other than getting my boots up a mountain. Normally, I would be hoping for the sky to clear (I’m not super keen on soggy hiking), but that day, I was indifferent. We weren’t in Squamish to hike: we were there to write.

The science communications (SciComm) writing workshop, organized by Beakerhead at Quest University, was unlike any other I have attended. From May 31st to June 3rd, we were immersed in science storytelling. Continue reading “How Beakerhead showed me the true spirit of SciComm”

A short history of pesticides

Pesticides. A difficult topic to navigate indeed. Precisely what should be done about them (if anything) is a charged debate with many layers, and here I will try to peel some of the most prominent. The tl;dr version: it’s complicated. Continue reading “A short history of pesticides”

The diversity dispute

Could inbreeding be causing the honey bee health challenges we see today? Continue reading “The diversity dispute”

Sylgard synergy

If exposure to pesticides wasn’t enough, there’s now growing evidence that other agrochemicals are also impacting honey bee health. Continue reading “Sylgard synergy”

Points of debate: Exploring pollinator misconceptions

In the “post-truth” era, it is increasingly difficult to discriminate fact from fiction and information surrounding honey bees is no exception. My goal in this piece is to explore some of the most common misconceptions about honey bees and provide some tools that can help mitigate the spread of misinformation. In this article, I’ll be answering some relatively simple questions which have surprisingly complex answers Continue reading “Points of debate: Exploring pollinator misconceptions”

Hygienic behaviour: It’s all about the necromones

Social immunity has ancient roots in insect evolution. Ants urgently carry their dead to refuse piles, termites preferring burials and honey bees dragging their dead and diseased brood out to their doorstep. This serves the same purpose for insects as quarantine did for humans in the smallpox era: in a cramped, crowded place, disease spreads like wildfire unless the infected individuals are removed. Continue reading “Hygienic behaviour: It’s all about the necromones”

Bee Research in the ‘omics Era: Unlocking a Troublesome Genome

Healthy bees are a crucial part of our global food security. In fact, bees are so beneficial to the agricultural sector that their economic value is about $15 billion annually in the US alone. Many of the nuts, fruits and vegetables we eat every day are pollinated by bees, not to mention the canola, rapeseed and even Continue reading “Bee Research in the ‘omics Era: Unlocking a Troublesome Genome”

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