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Tending the hive

Family SOS’s Honey Beez project teaches kids far more than the science of beekeeping

Story and photos by Suzanne Rent

It’s a hot summer afternoon and a community garden on Jackson Road in Dartmouth is abuzz with activity. Locals tend to their plots: pulling weeds, watering vegetables, and tending to the flowers that decorate this once vacant lot. 

But in the far corner of the space, in an area surrounded by lattice fencing, several children learn about beekeeping. 

 “Oh, dear Lord, that is a lot of bees,” 15-year-old Melissa Walters recalls saying when she first arrived on the site today. “I am not a big fan of bugs, but once I came here and had the gear on, I knew I was going to be safe.”

Walters learned about the project via Healthy Teenz, a program run by Family SOS (a non-profit, child-centered organization that offers programs to build strong and healthy families). Walters is a junior leader at Healthy Teenz. Family SOS is also the organization behind this project, called Honey Beez.

Each of the kids is dressed in a beige beekeeper suit complete with screened hoods. The bees are busy here today. Michelle McPherson, a consultant with the Nova Scotia Beekeepers Association, is here to teach the kids. 

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The community garden on Jackson Road in Dartmouth is home to the Family SOS Honey Beez project. Family SOS also tends to a small garden in this former vacant lot, too.

She pulls out each frame from a hive, inspecting the honey. She puffs smoke from a metal dispenser to calm the bees crawling all over the frames and flying around everyone’s heads. If they are nervous of the insects, the kids don’t show it. They seem intent on learning about the workings of the hives. The session is long and the day is hot, and a couple of the students sit down in front of the hives, faces resting in their hands. 

Stewart Zaun, a program development officer with Family SOS, is learning about the hives too. He says the kids will soon see this is about more than bees. “They need to learn how to work together and they need to learn how to respect nature and animals, so that is definitely a plus to this program,” Zaun says. “You are teaching them how to take care of bees and be responsible with them.”

The project came about via Family SOS’s Healthy Teenz program. The kids in that program worked with CEED to create a social enterprise. But finding a unique idea was tough. “They didn’t want to do a bake sale,” Zaun says. “They didn’t want to do a car wash. They didn’t want to do the standard things.”

Zaun was sitting on his cousin’s deck listening to the buzzing of a nearby hive. “The idea struck me this would be a fantastic thing if we could harvest some honey and sell some honey,” he says. 

The first hive arrived at the garden the beginning of June. The others arrived within two weeks of that. There are six hives in total. Three of those will eventually make their way to the Family SOS location in Spryfield.

“I think it’s super exciting,” Zaun says. “Some of the youth get really nervous and then they calm down and get excited.” 

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Donna Morrison is the executive director at Family SOS. She has seen that confidence, too, including during a visit to the hive site just a couple of weeks after the kids started learning about the bees and tending the hive. A local TV crew was on site talking to the kids, who readily shared every bit of knowledge they gained. The cameras and speaking to reporters didn’t faze them. 

“I see the leadership being developed in them, I see the confidence, I see the pride they are taking,” Morrison says. “Not just in the bees, but in themselves. I think they know how much they worked and that wealth of information they have, they love sharing it with people.” 

If fall is mild, the bees will work until October. Over the winter, the staff and kids of Family SOS, and their consultant, will winterize the hives. Zaun and the kids will check in once in a while. The kids will then focus on the business side of selling honey: completing their business plan, marketing, product development, and branding. They will first sell bottles of honey, but eventually they’d like to produce honey-based products such as candles, skincare, sauces, and baked goods. 

But Morrison says the kids and the bees are teaching her important lessons, too, notably patience. “When we have a vision, I want it to happen right now,” Morrison says. “Certainly, this whole project has taught me patience and that not everything happens right away. Of course, with the bees, you rely on nature. Things aren’t going as quickly as I had hoped, but they are going really well.”

Zaun thinks they will take the confidence they learned with them to other goals that have nothing to do with insects. 

“If they can handle 50,000 bees at once, they can handle whatever life is going to throw at them,” he says.