Busy Bees

I n a community garden on Arthur Street in the Hill, Dillan, a junior at High School in the Community, kneels on the ground and feeds grass into a smoker to “cool” the fire inside. He squeezes the bellows, and thick puffs of gray smoke chuff into the humid summer air, then stretch into long curls before they dissipate. “It smells like barbecue,” another student notes.

Dillan and Alex, a senior at Eli Whitney Technical High School, take turns gently puffing smoke onto each other’s clothes before donning white beekeeping suits. They’re among the fledgling beekeepers of the Huneebee Project, a two-year-old program with three locations citywide, founded and run by Sarah Taylor, a clinical social worker.

sponsored by

The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven

Like Dillan, Alex and their peers, Taylor “never ever ever” expected to keep bees. The closest she thought she’d get was a hobby of making candles from beeswax. But once she followed the wax to its source, there was no turning back. “I was hooked from the moment I first heard about what it was like to keep bees,” she says. She got her first two hives and “began to realize pretty quickly that being with bees and the whole process of lighting the smoker and being in the bee suit and opening up the hive was [an] escape for me.” That seemed odd, until she spoke to other beekeepers. They, too, described time spent with their hives as something akin to a “spiritual practice.”

It wasn’t a stretch from there to the Huneebee Project. At the same time as she was enjoying beekeeping, Taylor was thinking about the challenges of her work, “a frustration of the limitations of being a therapist, and frustration in seeing how the systems operate, and the gaps and fragmentation in the system and oppression in the system.” She’d already been thinking about starting a social enterprise for youth, especially those who were aging out of foster care. The bees seemed a perfect vehicle.

Now suited up, Dillan, a first-year beekeeper-in-residence, and Alex, a program graduate who’s been promoted to junior garden site manager and peer instructor, approach one of the four active hives. Dozens of proverbial busy bees are clustered at the entrance and flying in and out. Alex removes the lid and, using a hive tool, pries up one frame to check it. Sure enough, hexagonal cells of capped honey and nectar are beginning to fill the frame.

The students have harvested and sold their honey online, by word of mouth and at a local festival. (The online shop says the honey is currently sold out, though I’m told another batch is almost ready.) Proceeds go back into the program. The honey from the first garden, on Hazel Street in Newhallville, is the tastiest, says Gianna, another junior garden site manager and peer instructor who’s a senior at Wilbur Cross High School. The flavor “depends on the surrounding plants in the area,” she says.

Gianna offers up a tour of the Arthur Street beds, packed with plants like bee balm, calendula, lemon balm, catnip and an herb called spilanthes, which, the students good-naturedly admit, they sometimes tell guests to taste as a prank; it numbs the mouth. The garden also includes a few robust vegetable plants: tomato, pepper, cucumber, beans. The garden itself belongs to Gather New Haven (the result of a merger between the New Haven Land Trust and New Haven Farms) and includes community plots tended by neighbors. Students come to tend their beds once or twice a week.

The Huneebee training program lasts for four months in the spring and summer, leading to year-round employment for some young graduates. Each group is intentionally small—just five or six students, who learn every step of the process from building hives to maintaining them to harvesting the honey. Each student is matched with an adult mentor, usually a clinical social worker, who helps with job skills like how to write a resume and fill out a W4. Students also reach out to the community through weekly “hive checks”—a chance to educate neighbors about beekeeping and the important role of bees and other pollinators in the larger ecosystem, although those gatherings are temporarily on hold. In normal times, program graduates also get together for a monthly dinner series, where speakers present on topics like financial literacy, dressing for work and writing professional emails.

But perhaps the most important teachers are the bees themselves. “Part of the training program is learning and sharing what we refer to as tracking,” Taylor says. Each session begins with an exercise in which “[we] track our mind and our body and our heart on a scale of 1 to 10, and some of that is with the intention of kind of knowing where you’re at and what you need before you suit up and you go and enter an active hive.” At the same time, she says, the exercise taps into something bigger: “knowing where you’re at and what you need… for life.”

Dillan admits he was a little bit afraid of the bees when he first came to Huneebee, having been stung as a child. “It was something new that I said, ‘You know what? I want to get out of my comfort zone,’” he says. “I’ve grown to know where my boundaries are. When I joined here, I learned so much. It was kind of like [the bees] are cool with you if you’re cool with them.”

Huneebee’s third cohort is now in training at a garden on James Street in Fair Haven. It’s important for each new group to have their own site, Taylor says. It gives them a sense of ownership over the care of their apiary and, eventually, an opportunity to be paid to maintain it.

That’s a big responsibility, but not everything is serious at Huneebee. When the hive is lidded again and everyone is sitting around a picnic table, the wordplay begins, not for the first time; the project’s Instagram account is swarming with puns. (“We’re bee-yond excited to be installing honey bee hives in our third #newhaven community garden site this spring!”)

“Gotta bee-lieve in yourself,” suggests Forseti, a friend of Alex’s who’s visiting the garden.

“Bee-yoo-tiful!” Alex counters.

For these young entrepreneurs, beekeeping is more than a hob-bee. It’s a big step toward independence.

Huneebee Project
[email protected]

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 features Alex. Image 2 features Sarah Taylor, Alex and Dillan.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

Leave a Reply