Updated: Feb 22
“What did the honeybee do all day?”
Sounds like the start of a great joke doesn’t it and in one way, you’re not wrong. In fact, it was the precursor to a punchline shared with us by Alice - or Ali as she so fondly corrected us - who is a voluntary member of Hives For Humanity. She recently joined us alongside her colleague, Horace and Hives For Humanity co-founder (and beekeeper), Sarah to tell us more about the heart-warming work of the Vancouver Downtown Eastside community and how Hives For Humanity came to bee (sorry, couldn’t resist).
Hives For Humanity is a Canadian not-for-profit within the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood of Vancouver. It’s no secret that the Downtown Eastside area is known for its high levels of homelessness, poverty and crime, nor its worsening housing and drug policy crises. The Hives for Humanity project works towards a world of social and environmental justice, through creating opportunities around connection, belonging and self-worth for the members of this marginalised community. The project is now in more than 20 locations, with 56 community beehives placed in supportive housing sites, hotels, local businesses and even on the rooftop of the Vancouver Convention Centre.
Sarah is amongst those at the helm and proud to be supported by a growing number of volunteers and partners, including the wonderful Ali and Horace. So in this ONEOFTHE8 story, we sit down with 3 of the 8 - a hatrick in the game of being a great human - but first, let me take you on a quick journey back in time…
“Our members were talking with hope about next year and in a community that’s often in survival of the day, talking about next year felt really significant”
As a kid, I would run a million miles away from a bee. I’d watch my classmates in primary school scream in hysterics while the school nurse held a vinegar-sodden cloth against a sting and vow to never be within a metre of those fuzzy little monsters - the bees, not my classmates that is. Not helped by my mum telling me that if I didn’t wash my hands and face after eating an ice cream then the buzzy bees in our garden would stick to me and sting me. Pretty gnarly information to receive as a wee nipper.
The reason why I’m imparting these somewhat harrowing little snippets of my tender youth onto you is because there’s an interesting comparison to be made here. Having grown up and learnt more about the world (but still not stopped eating ice creams in the garden) I now know that bees are far from the enemy. In fact, they’re pretty integral to human life actually. I now know that my mum had unknowingly demonised these incredible insects as a harmless way to encourage me to stay clean and keep my sticky mitts off the sofa.
Just like my mum warned me against the threat of the big bad bee, Sarah’s education had always warned her against the dangers of the Downtown Eastside. For so long, the message had been instilled in Sarah to avoid this neighbourhood at all costs, “to go round it rather than through it” and to steer clear of the people that resided within it. It was only during her twenties, after joining the Downtown Eastside Life Skills Center as a food security programme student, that Sarah had her eyes opened and all of her pre-existing biases broken down.
During our conversation, Sarah told us about one memory in particular, which has since served as a symbolic turning point in her life and the moment to which she traces everything she stands for now back to. She recalls working in the kitchen at the Life Skills Center, helping hand out hot coffee and snacks to a long line of neighbourhood residents (including Horace). The coffee had reached the end of the urn, coming to a point where it required multiple pairs of hands to tip in order to pour out the remaining liquid at the very bottom. Sarah watched on as the person at the front of the queue tipped the urn for the next three people in line, the last of which then poured a cup of coffee for the first.
It was this small act of kindness which struck a chord within Sarah, offering her a fresh perspective of the generosity and humanity that was actually present within a community that is so readily tarnished by reputation and socio-economic status. As I mentioned earlier, Horace - originally from Alberta - was one of the community members in the coffee line and is now a key part of the Hives For Humanity project. Horace helps make the honey (and by his own admission, eat it) and create crafts to decorate the community spaces, as well as writing thank you notes in the form of short poems to project supporters - a source of human connection he treasures deeply. “Hives For Humanity is keeping me out of jail and out of trouble”, Horace shares with us, all the while clutching a handmade dreamcatcher - one of many he has crafted and something he tells us helps him feel calm.
“Hives For Humanity is keeping me out of jail and out of trouble”
Ali, who is originally from Northern Ontario but joined the Downtown Eastside community many years ago to raise her family helps run the Hives’ candle training programme. During our conversation, Ali refers back to the melting pot of cultures that Canada has become, reminding listeners on more than one occasion of the paramount importance of getting along despite our differences. A mantra that I’m sure all of us could take a little something from.
“Diversity is strength; diversity is resilience”
The incredible thing about Hives For Humanity is that is brings people together and gives people a chance but of course, it’s not all about the people. Hives For Humanity also exists in equal measure to help protect and nurture the planet’s bee population, which currently sits at more than 20,000 species worldwide. The project aims to make the community a more hospitable place for bees to flourish and pollinate because without them, “two thirds of what we eat wouldn’t be on our plates”.
Things like chemical-dependent agriculture and the industrial pollination of honeybees is putting immense pressure on the species and the Hives For Humanity team believe that there now needs to be a shift towards more wild forage habitats. The importing of honeybees is also making life more tricky for wild beekeepers, risking other bee species simultaneously so this diversity needs protecting now more than ever because “diversity is strength; diversity is resilience”. Here we have another comparison between the human species and the bee community - power in our diversity.
And so to conclude this fabulous story of humbling altruism with one final analogy…
In the same way that, sure, a bee might one day sting you, the Downtown Eastside does come with a certain level of undeniable risk. However, every single bee - regardless of its likelihood to sting you - is an essential part of its hymenopteran colony, in the very same way that every single human being is an instrumental part of society. What does this teach us? Well, that no matter who somebody is, no matter where their roots lay and whatever life story they may have written so far, we’ve all got the potential to give. We can all be inspired and we can all inspire.
As Sarah so eloquently puts it: “there’s a big mirror there in our human communities that we can be reflecting on - diversity in our human communities is strength too”.
Oh, and by the way, I’ve never been stung by a bee.
To find out more about the incredible work going on at Hives for Humanity, head to hivesforhumanity.com. To hear more about the stories of Sarah, Ali and Horace, and how they all intertwine within this remarkable community, or to find out what you can do to help protect the world’s bee population, listen to their episode on the ONEOFTHE8 podcast.