Hon­ey­bees are bring­ing some sweet­ness to Van­cou­ver’s Down­town East­side.

A moth­er­daugh­ter team is build­ing a buzzing com­mu­nity in East Van­cou­ver.

Elle (Canada) - - Insider - By Guy Saddy

as hun­dreds of bees dart around her, bee­keeper Ju­lia Com­mon, as­sisted by her daugh­ter, Sarah, gin­gerly re­moves a wooden frame from an ac­tive bee­hive be­fore care­fully pass­ing it to Sean, who stands nearby. The frame is crawl­ing with in­sects; it seems al­most a living thing. For some­one who has never han­dled bees be­fore, Sean, a first-time vol­un­teer with Hives for Hu­man­ity (H4H), is in­cred­i­bly calm. Even so, he must be care­ful.

“Vi­bra­tions mean that you’ve made a mis­take,” says Ju­lia. “We’ll know very soon if they’re ag­gres­sive or not.”

“I’m sure that they’ll let me know,” says Sean.

A few me­tres away is a well-tended veg­etable gar­den and, next to it, a pol­li­na­tor gar­den. De­signed for the 30,000odd bees in th­ese hives, it’s filled with a wide va­ri­ety of plants, from laven­der and mus­tard to sage, lupine and clover. This, one might think, is a clas­si­cally bu­colic ru­ral scene.

Ex­cept it’s not. Sur­rounded by graf­fi­tis­carred build­ings, the Hast­ings Ur­ban Farm is lo­cated on a va­cant in­ner-city lot in Van­cou­ver’s prob­lem-plagued Down­town East­side, a place that is lit­tered with trashed dreams and used h

sy­ringes. Here, H4H pro­vides res­i­dents of what is of­ten re­ferred to as “the poor­est postal code in Canada,” many of whom are living with ad­dic­tion and men­tal-health is­sues, with the op­por­tu­nity to turn the soil and tend the bees—and, more pow­er­fully, cul­ti­vate a sense of be­long­ing and self-worth.

Founded in 2012, H4H is the brain­child of Sarah Com­mon. Born in Que­bec and raised in Scot­land, Sarah, 30, first ar­rived in the Down­town East­side in 2006 when she was a Uni­ver­sity of Bri­tish Columbia agri­cul­ture stu­dent with an in­ter­est in “food se­cu­rity”—the pro­vi­sion of safe, nu­tri­tious and af­ford­able food. With its myr­iad af­flic­tions, the Down­town East­side proved to be a huge chal­lenge: Poverty, home­less­ness, ad­dic­tion and men­tal-health is­sues are all bar­ri­ers to im­ple­ment­ing ef­fec­tive food-se­cu­rity pro­to­cols.

“We came in think­ing that we could in­crease the nu­tri­tional con­tent of the meals be­ing served by con­nect­ing the com­mu­nity to un­tapped sources of fresh food,” ex­plains Sarah. “But what I found was a lot more than I ex­pected.” And a project that would clearly take longer than a se­mes­ter to com­plete. “I felt that as stu­dents we had taken a lot more than we had given,” she says. “I wanted to re­pay that debt, so I kept on vol­un­teer­ing and got more and more in­volved.”

This didn’t sit well with her mother, Ju­lia, 62, who, in ad­di­tion to hav­ing a sim­i­lar aca­demic back­ground, had be­come trans­fixed by bee­keep­ing when she was a young stu­dent at McGill Uni­ver­sity. Like many, she re­garded Van­cou­ver’s Down­town East­side as vi­o­lent and danger­ous. “I’d been try­ing to get Sarah out of here her en­tire adult life,” says Ju­lia, an ac­tive bee­keeper for four decades. “I would come down here for drinks or din­ner and hold onto her as if I were in the world’s worst place.”

In 2012, while think­ing of ways she could help bring a sense of heal­ing and pur­pose to the com­mu­nity, Sarah hit on an op­por­tu­nity to rec­on­cile her work—and an af­flicted com­mu­nity’s needs—with her mother’s life­long pas­sion for api­cul­ture. “The bees,” she says, smil­ing, “were a way I could do that, and I had this as­set in my back pocket.” One day, she broached the idea with her as­set. “We were hav­ing cof­fee at my favourite café,” she re­calls. “I said, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be nice if we could do some­thing mean­ing­ful to­gether?’” Some­what re­luc­tantly, Ju­lia signed on.

Armed with an ini­tial $2,000 in­vest­ment from the Port­land Ho­tel So­ci­ety, a lo­cal non- profit for which Sarah worked at the time, they es­tab­lished their first hive (still a go­ing con­cern) at the Hast­ings Folk Gar­den, an­other re­claimed lot a few blocks east of the h

Hast­ings Ur­ban Farm. To­day, about 190 vol­un­teers help H4H main­tain a net­work of 34 api­aries. Some of the vol­un­teers are regular, some are not, but all de­rive a sense of pur­pose from, say, tend­ing the pol­li­na­tor gar­den or clean­ing the drone frames. New moves in­clude a re­cently launched re­tail out­let on nearby Pow­ell Street. Called “Bee Space,” its hexag­o­nal shelves are filled with beeswax can­dles, lo­tions and salves, and, of course, H4H’s own honey—the sale of which helps off­set at least some of the project’s op­er­at­ing costs. It hasn’t been com­pletely smooth sail­ing, how­ever. In 2013, in the wake of widely re­ported spend­ing ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties at the Port­land Ho­tel So­ci­ety, H4H was one of the af­fil­i­ated so­cial en­ter­prises sin­gled out as be­ing a waste of tax­payer dol­lars—un­fairly, say those who work with H4H.

At this junc­ture, H4H’s fu­ture is far from cer­tain. The city-owned land won’t be avail­able for­ever; it’s sim­ply too valu­able, and lo­cal hous­ing pres­sures are too great. (The land is cur­rently leased from the city for a nom­i­nal an­nual fee.) That said, the Com­mons in­sist that the work is far too im­por­tant to give up.

“We wouldn’t let that hap­pen,” says Sarah. “It’s un­think­able. At worst, we would re­duce our hives.” Her mother agrees. “You don’t want to stop some­thing like this,” re­flects Ju­lia. “And, you know, we make great honey.” ■

Hives for Hu­man­ity bees build their hon­ey­comb nests; Ju­lia (far left) and Sarah Com­mon at one of H4H’s 34 Van­cou­ver sites; the Van­cou­ver Con­ven­tion Cen­tre’s 2.4-hectare green roof in­cludes an apiary that can house up to 60,000 bees.

A SWEET GET­AWAY

From June through Septem­ber, Van­cou­ver’s Lo­den Ho­tel is of­fer­ing a “Honey I Helped the Bees” pack­age. Check in to a stylish suite stocked with honey-in­fused snacks be­fore you are whisked off to Mil­ross Gar­den to spend an af­ter­noon with Hives for Hu­man­ity’s bee­keep­ers and taste fresh honey (which you’ll also take home).Twenty dol­lars from ev­ery book­ing goes to­ward Hives for Hu­man­ity (from $449 a night, dou­ble oc­cu­pancy, th­elo­den.com).

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