Photo: Sarah Common
A Canadian mother-daughter team installs therapeutic apiaries and gardens in the Hastings homeless community

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 are sitting on the sidewalk, heads bowed to cardboard change cups, kitty corner to L’Abattoir – a classy, French-inspired West coast restaurant. Despite being home to some of Vancouver’s finest dining, the Downtown Eastside is one of the most marginalized communities in the country, notorious for homelessness, sex work, drug use and mental illness. But Sarah Common and her mother, Julia, saw a unique opportunity to use beehives to add wholesomeness to the Hastings community. In June 2012, Hives for Humanity was born.

Starting with a single beehive, Sarah and Julia created their first Eastside apiary in the Hastings Folk Garden – right beside the supervised injection site, where people with chronic drug addictions can 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,” Gafar Yousif recalls. He lives just one block from the Folk Garden in the Lux Transitional Housing complex, which itself is home to another therapeutic apiary.

Hives for Humanity uses therapeutic apiaries and gardens as a channel to transfer core values of 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. Sarah reminisces on the early days, when she and her mother were first getting things started. “The community response was inspiring. We saw the bees creating hope and fostering self-worth, with potential for social enterprise. We knew we had to keep going.”

Sarah studied land and food systems at the University of British Columbia, and began spending time in the Downtown Eastside for a school project on improving food quality in the area. She never really left. She and her mother, who has been beekeeping for decades, soon joined forces to bring Hives for Humanity to life. “I was thinking of ways to engage more people in the green respite of the garden, to create more opportunities for the community to take leadership roles in enhancing that space. At the same time, I was realizing my mum was, firstly, someone I wanted to spend more time with as an adult, and secondly, that she was an experienced beekeeper. I asked her to teach me how to keep bees, in the context of the Downtown Eastside community, and she said yes!”

Sarah and Julia never expected that the project 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 two hundred colonies and after consulting with community centers in Victoria and Halifax, similar honey bee-based initiatives in at-risk communities are now spanning coast to coast.

Honey bees might seem like an unusual focus for a social empowerment program, but it’s easy to see how Hives for Humanity has been so successful. Many of us beekeepers can probably recall the first time we cracked open a hive – for me, seeing and smelling the miniature, hustling, bustling society for the first time was a wonderful sensation. Watching the bees go about their tasks – peeking in to brood cells and lapping at broken honey comb – sparks an inner curiosity that’s common in all of us. As a tool to bring a community together with common goals and responsibilities, it’s ideal.

Beyond the curiosity, the schedule of hive management lends itself well to an outreach program. Every week or two there’s something to do. The regular tasks – painting equipment, supplement feeding, swarm checks, disease treatments, pulling honey, and preparing for winter – are enough work to yield a sense of achievement, while not so rigorous that it’s a chore. Rather, it’s a routine to look forward to. For many people, including myself, that feeling alone is valuable for mental well-being. All these characteristics – the curiosity, responsibility, and husbandry – come together to create what Sarah and Julia call “the culture of the hive,” which has turned into an effective form of social therapy. “I really look forward to it” says an anonymous community member. “I love hearing ‘see you next week!’ I feel like I belong. I feel safe from violence and jail. My self-esteem is now improved because I feel like I contribute.” This is just one example of meaningful, lasting change that Hives for Humanity has helped create. And they are continuing to expand.

In June 2017, the Commons established the newest of their 34 therapeutic apiaries in Cathedral Square – an underutilized city space – in partnership with the Vancouver Parks Board and the Downtown Business Improvement Association. There, they do regular beekeeping workshops that teach curious community members about basic bee biology and hive management, sometimes along with crafts like candle- and salve-making in the winter months. Participants may attend regularly or irregularly as their needs change, and can move around to different apiaries if they find themselves spending time in different parts of town. Their engagement spans anywhere from attending a few workshops to taking the lead on teaching them. If they are dedicated, they can also attend the more rigorous Mentorship Workshops – where community members have greater responsibilities for hive maintenance – as well as beekeeping courses offered by the local Honey Bee Center, which is one of Hives for Humanity’s many partners.

In many ways, honey bees are an ideal hub around which to build a community; however, not everyone is comfortable working a hive. By their mandate of inclusivity, the Commons have developed other projects related to pollinators that are geared towards folks who are in better touch with plants than insects. The Pollinator Corridor and Therapeutic Gardening Project, which is aimed at creating urban forage sources for both wild bees and honey bees, does just that. With the help of the community members, urban meadows are being planted and maintained along city greenways, in reclaimed city lots, community gardens, and other locations in partnership with the City of Vancouver, the Fairmont Hotel, and non-profit organizations.

These pollinator corridors were built to help reduce habitat fragmentation for native bees, giving them new nests and sources of food. The Commons may not have the resources to fix Vancouver’s housing crisis, but they’re making sure the pollinators don’t suffer too. Complete with mason bee hotels and loving gardeners who plant, water, and weed, it is making the landscape more bee-friendly. But as the project matured, Julia  noticed an unintended benefit. The urban flowers are attracting more than just bees – people are also finding new respite in the lively green space. “With the little pollinating meadows, not only have the insects come, but people from different neighborhoods have also come to those meadows to enjoy them,” she explains. One garden-goer testifies, “You don’t have to worry about anything when you’re here. It’s very peaceful.”

But even with these diverse and inclusive therapeutic activities, a challenge with the Hives for Humanity model soon became apparent. Every winter, the work would slow. There are only so many candles and salves to make. The bees would quietly go into hibernation mode and although some plants can enjoy Vancouver’s (relatively) mild conditions and grow year-round, there is not much maintenance needed in the garden. The community loses many of the activities that normally keep them together, and the people themselves seek shelter from the soggy winter. In keeping with their track record, Sarah and Julia turned this problem into an opportunity.

The Commons set out to acquire a year-round roof – a place in the Downtown Eastside where the community can gather on rainy days, have a cup of tea, and remain connected in the off-season. After many grant applications, donations and an intense crowdfunding campaign, enough money was raised to allow Hives for Humanity to rent and renovate a nearby business suite, which they named (naturally) “Bee Space.” Bee Space, which houses a café, workshop space and retail outlet, opened in 2016 with much celebration. Not only does it create even more opportunities for employment, volunteering, and transferrable skills for community members year-round, it’s also the perfect place to sell the products of their craft.

Hives for Humanity is a non-profit, and its operating costs are covered mainly by small grants, charitable donations (some totaling a whole beekeeping operation, like what Don Cameron donated upon retirement), support from other non-profit organizations, and revenue from one reliable hive product: honey. In 2015, their honey production rounded off at about 4,000 pounds. With the right marketing, this can offer substantial income. But of course, even with the pollinator corridor meadows, one neighborhood can’t support enough colonies to make this much honey. Rather, it’s largely a product of the Neighborhood Honey program, where families and businesses give their backyard and a hosting fee to Hives for Humanity, who in turn provide the hosts with beehives for their yard. This way, a population of hives is spread around the city to take advantage of urban floral sources in a bigger area. When the honey is pulled, its corresponding neighborhood is carefully catalogued and maintained throughout the extraction process. The result is row upon row of glowing honey jars, each labelled with the neighborhood and host from which it came. In this way, Hives for Humanity’s reach extends beyond the Downtown Eastside, giving families an opportunity to give back to the community and establish a connection, despite living in sometimes distant places.

With their booming neighborhood honey production, Sarah and Julia wanted to lay to rest any concerns that their urban honey was less clean than the rural-produced counterparts. Part of this is because in an urban setting (unlike in a canola field), it’s harder to be sure of the nectar source. Some urban beekeepers joke that if you keep colonies next to the Pacific National Exhibition (or PNE – Vancouver’s biggest amusement park), you’ll end up with honey that’s pink and blue with cotton candy. There was very little scientific literature on the quality of urban honey, so early on, the neighborhood honey was analyzed for trace metals and other contaminants at the Pacific Centre for Isotopic and Geochemical Research (an analytical lab at the University of British Columbia). They found that the honey was safe for consumption, and the neighborhood honey program has since flourished.

Starting with a single beehive, this wholesome endeavor has now touched many lives in the Downtown Eastside and beyond. Through lasting partnerships with funders, agencies, and community members, they’ve created a sustainable system for social change. Hives for Humanity is a school, a community, and a coping mechanism all in one, and in 2016 its impact was formally recognized with the Environmental Community Organizer Award (given by the Environmental Studies Association of Canada). What speaks far louder than awards, though, are the heartfelt testimonies.

One Eastside community member shares what they’ve gained from the beekeeping programs: “I’m not a nobody anymore… No one in my family can believe what I’ve done and accomplished.” Through the eyes of another, “There is life beyond drug addiction, prostitution and alcoholism. This work helps you make that shift. You see yourself differently.” The green, buzzing Hastings Folk Garden brings people together and offers a sanctuary amidst one of Canada’s poorest postal codes. For many people, this invaluable haven is their first step away from the margins and toward a more luminous life.

This article appeared in the October 2017 issue of American Bee Journal.