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Downtown Eastside beekeepers aim for winter home to keep human hives strong

A group that brought beekeeping to the Downtown Eastside is working to raise $25,000 for Bee Space, a small building…

By Vanessa Hrvatin , in City , on November 26, 2015

Ian Smythe, member of Hives for Humanity, keeping busy in Bee Space
Ian Smythe, member of Hives for Humanity, keeping busy in Bee Space

A group that brought beekeeping to the Downtown Eastside is working to raise $25,000 for Bee Space, a small building the group hopes to use to keep their community program buzzing during the winter season.

The people who run the non-profit organization Hives for Humanity, which uses beekeeping as a therapeutic tool to connect Downtown Eastside residents to each other and to other communities, say they need a winter space to keep relationships strong.

Connections can be lost during the winter after the honey has been collected, the bees are quiet, and members aren’t out in the gardens, says Hives co-founder Sarah Common.

“If we’re trying to do something sustainable, how can we just say goodbye over the winter?” says Common. “Connection can be really hard to establish so sometimes you lose trust when you lose this connection, and our whole program is built on trust.”

Hives moved into Bee Space on Powell Street in February and has been using it for bee-related production and workshops. However, many renovations are needed before it can be fully functional and open to the public.

As well, Common has applied for a business permit so Bee Space can serve as a store and cafe during the winter months, but the city won’t give a permit until the space is renovated.

The plan is to sell bee-based products made by members, including candles, lotions and lip balms, in the retail space. The cafe will stick to the bee theme by serving products like tea with honey.

The renovations will also allow Bee Space to hold more workshops and to act as an office which, according to Common, is critical when working with Downtown Eastside residents.

“I can’t make an appointment with someone at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday. It just doesn’t work,” she says. “But if I’m at Bee Space for a 10-hour stretch, people can just drop in. It’s a place that offers consistency so we don’t let down expectations.”

Renovations will cost about $50,000, half of which has been funded by a City of Vancouver DTES community economic development grant.

Hives for Humanity is also running an Indiegogo campaign to fundraise the remaining $25,000 by Dec. 2.

With less than a week to go, the group has raised $16,405.

In line with the objective of bridging communities, Hives for Humanity gives a free cup of tea with honey to someone in the Downtown Eastside community for every $10 donation.

Ian Smythe leads a lip balm workshop at Bee Space.
Ian Smythe leads a lip balm workshop at Bee Space.

For Andrew Scott, a member of Hives for Humanity for the past three years, Bee Space has already started to provide a sense of hope and purpose throughout the winter.

“At this time last year, I would be at home sad, terrified about the next couple months of down time and missing the bees,” says Scott.

The sense of purpose Scott describes is clear when entering Bee Space. Some members are labelling honey jars and others are rolling wax candles, all while chatting quietly.

Ian Smythe, a Downtown Eastside resident who’s entering his fourth year with the organization, looks forward to the renovations and progression of Bee Space.

A Hives for Humanity member rolls wax into a candle at Bee Space.
A Hives for Humanity member rolls wax into a candle at Bee Space.

“I’m really excited to see how this space will evolve,” he says. “I wonder what the next generation of this is going to be.”

The organization partnered with The Fairmont Waterfront, which has had a rooftop apiary since 2008. Fairmont staff and Hives for Humanity members meet at the outdoor gardens to discuss social issues facing the Downtown Eastside. Common says it’s the bees that provide a connection between these two communities.

The summer beekeeping project has been a success on many levels, thanks in part to the way that human connection can be mediated through animals, as science has shown.

According to Dr. John-Tyler Binfet, who does research on animal-assisted therapy, animals can connect people who otherwise might not interact. The University of British Columbia Okanagan assistant professor says people are often more approachable and open to intervention when an animal is present.

Common hopes Bee Space will keep this bee-mediated connection in the Downtown Eastside thriving throughout the winter by being sustainable and inclusive.

“I want it to be a place that can offer skills and opportunity,” says Common. “Because with that comes self- worth, which changes lives.”