Things are buzzing at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. In the vacant land under some of the busiest skies in the world, the Westside Bee Boyz tend to 75 beehives. Airport apiaries are a growing trend; they can be found in Germany, Quebec, Copenhagen and Seattle. The program at O’Hare, which started in 2011, is part of the airport’s Green Initiatives, which also include an “aeroponic garden, green roofs, construction recycling, and wetland restoration.”
The beekeepers are recruited by the North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN), a non-profit social enterprise. Many of those employed have served time in prison, and have a difficult time finding employment upon their release. NLEN partners with Sweet Beginnings, a small company, to hire these individuals. The honey produced at the airport is used to manufacture a line of skin care products. The partnership enables former offenders to secure paid employment, develop new job skills and add value to their community.
The program impacts are significant. Per NLEN records, the number of “former Sweet Beginnings employees who return to a life of crime is below 10 percent compared to the national average of 40 percent and the Illinois average of 55 percent.”
Could the program become a model for other parts of the nation?
“I opened a hive and I just fell in love,” [Thad] Smith wrote on his company website. “It’s so fascinating. I can just stand there and watch 60,000 individuals who are one entity, working toward one common goal. It is all about the colony, making sure they survive and find a way to work together.” Now he is the co-owner of Westside Bee Boyz and does contract work for Sweet Beginnings managing their airport hives.
“Beekeeping has allowed me to help the community, provide jobs, and be a mentor,” Smith says. “The people I work with are like a colony of bees. [We’re] putting people to work and propagating the community of North Lawndale. There is not a day that goes by when I don’t learn something.”
An informative and inspiring read.