Honeybees Give Former Prisoners a New Chance

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workers check the hives at the Chicago-area apiaries. Sweet Beginnings

Not a lot of people want to get up close and personal with bees. Despite their contributions to the environment, bees can be a little scary.

Likewise, people who have recently been in prison can inspire fear. But when given the chance, says Brenda Palms Barber, they both can produce something sweet and good.

Barber is CEO of Sweet Beginnings, a program that is part of the North Lawndale Employment Network outside of Chicago. The social enterprise creates full-time transitional jobs for men and women who have been incarcerated. The program was created for people with criminal backgrounds who often have a difficult time finding employment once they're released.

The board of Sweet Beginnings created a job training program, but they found that so many of their clients experienced closed doors once they revealed their past. Barber realized their group had to create a business to employ them personally. That would help give them the social and job skills to get them re-introduced back into the workforce and prove to potential employers that they were ready to take on responsibility.

"We had to demonstrate to society that people who have served their time have, in fact, served their time" Barber says.

They mulled several options for types of businesses to start, many of which were "very, very bad ideas," Barber says. Finally, one board member suggested beekeeping. Why not, they thought, agreeing to meet with beekeepers to learn more.

"It was in a conversation with these beekeepers, that they shared it's a hobby or a profession passed on through storytelling. And I thought most people love to learn through stories. That's really how we landed here."

Donning the protective suit

Kelvin in a bee suit at Sweet Beginnings
Kelvin dons his bee suit as he works with the hives at ' apiaries in the Chicago area. Sweet Beginnings

Beelove was born in 2005. The group soon had five apiaries with 130 hives throughout the Chicago area, making them the largest urban beehive operator in the city. Because honey has a low profit margin, they decided to also make skincare products from some of the honey that would be extracted from the hives.

When given the opportunity to work with the bees, most clients weren't hesitant to put on the protective suit.

"People were so desperate for a job that they were willing to put aside their fears to work," Barber says. "The greater fear was to not have a job at all."

If some people couldn't conquer their fears, they ended up with other jobs like labeling and packaging products, assembling hives, or helping sell items at markets and fairs.

"There are always those who are incredibly fearful and never get over it and those who just love working with the bees," Barber says. "Most will tolerate the bees but they all have a respect for them and the miracle that the honeybee is and the important work they do."

The sweet taste of success

employee demonstrates beelove product to customers
Sweet Beginnings participated in the Chicago World Fair Trade's Pop-up Shop in July 2016. Here, Christopher R demonstrates beelove body creme. Sweet Beginnings/Facebook

About five to 10 employees work for Sweet Beginnings' beelove project at any one time. They're employed full-time for three months, then transition into the job market. In the decade or so since beelove started, nearly 500 former prisoners have had jobs with the company.

Beelove honeybees have produced 1,600 pounds of honey. Although the majority is sold and packaged as raw natural honey, the rest is made into products ranging from body cream and shower gel to lip balm and sugar scrub. The products can be purchased online and at Whole Foods and various other retailers.

"One thing Sweet Beginnings does besides producing beautiful skincare products and local honey is restore a person's self-worth and help them gain confidence in themselves so they can be good employees and make good choices," Barber says. "When you know your own value, you make better choices in life."

Interestingly, Barber says sometimes people who aren't involved in the project seem confused that the honeybees are so productive in the inner city areas where the hives are located. They want to know where do the bees go? Where do they find flowers?

Barber points out that they have a number of parks and backyard gardens, but there are also a lot of weeds.

"Bees don't discern between what we as humans see as a flower or a weed. They just see the positive and transform it into something that is good. That's what we are doing with individuals who are interested in turning their lives around," she says.

"I love that this little honeybee is teaching us so much about humanity. People are afraid of people with backgrounds and people are naturally afraid of bees. Bees can sting you and we have all been stung by people. Yet they can still produce goodness."

Listen to Barber talk about the program in this touching video: