There’s a little bit of magic that exists in the heart of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Nestled between worn down buildings and sprawling makeshift homes on surrounding streets, the Hastings Folk garden offers a therapeutic escape and an opportunity to find purpose and meaning through beekeeping. The garden is one of many spaces in the city partnering with Hives for Humanity, a creative approach to building and supporting communities in need.
“It’s a space of equity and inclusivity we can create, where what matters is our contribution, and we can do that in a spectrum of ways. It becomes a really special space,” says Sarah Common, who co-founded the non-profit project with her mother, Julia.
It starts with a plot of land – which can be anything from a business’ rooftop to a vacant parking lot – where a garden is established. Beehives are built and foliage is planted to allow for the bees to thrive. This apiary provides numerous possibilities for members of the community to learn, share experiences and most importantly – feel valued, says Common.
“The honeybees create this space in which when you’re gardening or beekeeping, it really doesn’t matter what your job title is, what your bank statement says, where you may have slept or tried to find shelter the night before. All that matters in that moment is how you’re behaving with the bees.”
Common first engaged with the DTES community as a student while volunteering at a life skills centre, through her program at the University of British Columbia. During one such visit, while handing out mugs, she noticed people in line tilting the coffee urn for each other. “That completely floored me – that there was generosity, that there was care, that there was a community. I think that was a huge shift for me in my perception and judgement and the stigmas I had been taught,” she says.
Following her experience, Common sought to incorporate a noticeable lack of green space while connecting with the community that left such an impression on her. Julia’s extensive background in beekeeping was integrated into the concept, and following a successful honeybee colony in the Hastings garden, Hives for Humanity was born.
In an area often stigmatized for its high density of drug addiction, homelessness and mental health crises, creating a welcoming space in the DTES that didn’t exclude was a huge motivation behind the project, says Common. “We’re all seeking connection, and experiencing being labeled and being excluded in different ways. I think humanizing that experience is the thing we all share, then we can start crossing those bridges.”
Now entering its seventh year, Hives for Humanity works with community gardens and non-profit organizations beyond the DTES, as well as a wide range of companies, offering beekeeping workshops, honey-making sessions and therapeutic mentorships. While Common is proud of her efforts, she credits a large part of the program’s effectiveness to the bees themselves. “The honeybees become this amazing factor through which we can do education and training and build the community. They’re an access point upon which we can build an inclusive culture.”
By bringing a diverse group together in nature, Sarah has witnessed firsthand the positive effect it’s had on the community. Her hour-long workshops take people out of the everyday stress and barriers they face, even if just temporarily. “Somebody can go from being nervous, full of fear, anxious, worrying about whatever conflict they’re having or pressure they’re under – into a space of calm, just because of the ways the bees and the gardens focus us and ground us.”
With a growing population of homeless people in Vancouver (2,100 and counting), there’s no doubt that the city is in need of the kind of connection and support that Hives for Humanity is initiating.
“There’s this whole culture we can build around the colony that is the beehive. They start opening our eyes to all these different people who are looking for connection,” Common says. “By building these inclusive spaces, we start to teach and demonstrate that we are all citizens, and we all have contributions to make.”
To learn more or to donate to Hives for Humanity, please visit: hivesforhumanity.com. 3ND