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Urban bee farm gives ex-inmates sweet new start in life

Planes aren't the only things taking off at Chicago's O'Hare airport: Down at the end of a runway, a new bee farm is soaring. Big-name stores are slurping up all the honey it can produce. Even celebrity chef Rick Bayless now features the nectar in some of his restaurants.

“What’s it called, Jet Engine Exhaust?" Bayless says with a laugh. "I don't know. But you taste the honey, it’s beautiful.”

In many ways.

These big-city beehives aren’t just making honey; they’re also helping transform one of the poorest places in America. In North Lawndale, a neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, nine out of 10 adults in their early 20s are unemployed.

Crime is rarely more than a street corner away. Eighty percent of the men have been in jail. Thad Smith, a combat Marine in the First Gulf War, was sent to prison for writing bad checks. He got out last February, could not find a job, and ended up homeless.

"I'm competing against people younger than me,” Smith says. “Plus they have better skills, plus they don't have any criminal background."

Brenda Palms Barber knew her neighbors needed work, but most companies were reluctant to hire ex-cons. So, with a grant from the Illinois Corrections Department, she started her own company. 

Never mind that Barber's knowledge of bees was limited to the honey she put on a biscuit.

Former inmates collect honey on the Sweet Beginnings bee farm.Today

"I needed a business where those former prison inmates could learn a trade — not with books, but with storytelling,” Barber says. Some former inmates are academically challenged. Beekeeping is taught word of mouth; you learn by doing.

So Barber sweet-talked John Hansen into teaching them. The 83-year-old was once president of the Illinois State Beekeepers Association.

Today Hansen stands between two hives. Hundreds of honeybees swirl around his head. Hansen wears no face netting, no protective clothing. The ex-cons, covered in protective gear from head to toe, look like a fencing team searching for lost sabers.

“Don’t walk on the bees,” Hansen says quietly. His motions are fluid and slow. The swarm lets him open a hive and pull out a honeycomb.

“Remember,” Hansen tells his students, “the bee is boss.”

In other words, you can’t con a bee. Do it right or get stung. But if you study bees, they can show you how to succeed in a competitive world.

Thad Smith looks into a hive and marvels. "You have thousands of them working for one single point: Make something good and sweet.”

His little company is doing just that. During the Great Recession, while others were laying people off, Sweet Beginnings created 360 new jobs for returning prison inmates. Their honey products pull in $300,000 a year.

For most this will not be a career; they work with the bees just two and a half months. Barber watches how they perform and then stands by them when they go looking for their next job.

Sweet Beginnings founder Brenda Palms Barber speaks with Bob Dotson.Today

"Working with beehives shifts the business interview from 'What did you bad that landed you in prison' to 'What's it like to work with bees?'" she explains. "The conversation moves from their past to their future.”

Apparently that makes a big difference. Nationwide, about six out of 10 ex-cons go back to prison. But since Sweet Beginnings started hiring in 2006, fewer than 4 percent of its employees have.

James White is one of those who never went back to jail. He’s been out for five years. “I found peace,” he says with a shrug. “That’s why I named my baby daughter Serenity.”

White now works for a landscaping company in Atlanta. Shelton Johnson hired him on the spot. “I was never stung handling bees,” White chuckles, “but I got stung four times this summer working this landscaper's job."  

"Those weren't bees,” Johnson says with a grin. “They were yellowjackets.”


“I was too busy running to see what they were wearing!" White retorts.

"Pollinate" is a word that Brenda Palms Barber likes to throw around when talking about her work. She pollinates jobs for recently released inmates, faith among the people who take a chance on hiring them, and new hope in North Lawndale.

All this grew from an overgrown field at the end of a runway, in a patch of weeds.

"Bees don't distinguish between what we see as a flower or a weed,” Barber says. "They're really just interested in collecting the good stuff."

After all, a weed is just a flower in a place you don't want it.

For more inspiring stories from Bob Dotson, read his new book, "American Story: A Lifetime Search for Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things."

Do you know someone outstanding? Tell Bob Dotson about people whose actions touch others.