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Lending a helping hand through hives
At the foggy end of a dry October, beekeeper Julia Common is checking in on her hives at Earthwise Gardens.
Her bees are settling in for a long winter nap, and will vibrate in unison to keep the queen bee happy and warm in her broodnest.
Julia has been beekeeping since the age of 21 – now over 40 years – but says she got into it by “fluke.”
“I was a dairy farmer at the university [of Manitoba] and my mentor suggested I should get out of my comfort zone and try something else,” she says.
That mentor, Cam Jay, gave Julia her first two bee hives. It didn’t take long to launch a lifelong passion for bees, and she has never forgotten those first hives.
Julia continues to share that experience with new beekeepers, although her latest students come from a most unusual and unexpected place.
Two summers ago she was living in the Gunn House by Earthwise Gardens while working at Southpointe Academy when her daughter Sarah visited one afternoon.
Sarah works as a frontline worker in the troubled Downtown Eastside (DTES) of Vancouver with the Portland Hotel Society.
“I’ve never been able to understand her level of commitment to that group, that sector of society,” confesses Julia.
As a parent she had tried to get Sarah to try a less dangerous line of work, but like most parents she finally accepted it wasn’t going to happen. On this visit her daughter shocked her once again.
“She said, ‘what if you bring a hive of bees downtown and teach me how to beekeep at the Hastings folk garden?’”
Julia was horrified at first, as this is perhaps the most notorious part of the DTES, just outside of the safe injection site where heroin addicts can get their fix unmolested by the police. But trusting in her daughter, she accepted.
Sarah prepared the community for the arrival of the bees while Julia prepared the bees. As it turned out, nobody needed to worry.
“The minute we brought the bees in, there was total acceptance from the people there,” says Julia.
Although there was some initial natural fear of the bees, a little education put their minds at ease.
Once the hive was downtown, the next big step was to set up a team of DTES beekeepers. Julia created a mentorship beekeeping program outside Portland Hotel and everything snowballed quickly.
“Within two weeks the gardeners wanted to be involved with the bees,” she says.
Locals learned how to harvest the honey and then sell it for income. And in the winter they were able to make beeswax products like soap and candles. Julia says the hive gave residents a chance to participate in agriculture and support the local economy, all without leaving the city.
Julia never imagined the bees would survive in the big city, but not only did they thrive they outproduced her country bees. An average hive produces 60 pounds of honey in Delta, while the DTES hive produced twice that much.
Julia figures the reason is the urban bees can visit the “continuous bloom” of gardens where there are fewer pesticides. More people are understanding the benefits to organic gardening.
“Lawns are just a desert, the idea of nice garden lawns aren’t good for the bees,” says Julia.
Planting bee-friendly flowers help sustain bee populations. Even those unsightly dandelions are a good protein source for bees in the spring.
The residents of the DTES weren’t the only ones to notice the positive effects of the bees. Portland Hotel went from one to seven hives in the second year. Thus began the project Hives for Humanity, expanding to 73 hives across Vancouver this past summer.
What’s even more remarkable is that the beekeepers are all homeless or former homeless people living with issues of addiction, mental illness, and troubled backgrounds. Julia says giving those people jobs and a sense of purpose has been a key part of the success of the bee experiment.
She says the bees kept everybody calm and helped them reconnect with nature and with each other.
For more information visit www.hivesforhumanity.com.