O'Hare Airport buzzing over honey bees

The sweet smell of success is in the air at O'Hare International Airport with an unusual collaboration aimed at giving honeybees and their keepers a second chance.

Twenty-three beehives were installed on a vacant piece of property on the airport's east side this spring.

Tending to the hives are carefully screened former convicts enrolled with the nonprofit North Lawndale Employment Network.

The idea is “to create jobs for people who have a difficult time finding them,” said Brenda Palms Barber, executive director of NLEN and CEO of Sweet Beginnings. “There's a stigma and fear about hiring people who've served time in prison.”

Out of this problem grew Sweet Beginnings, an urban honey enterprise that employs people who have served time. Some work as beekeepers, others as landscapers or food processors.

“Bees don't distinguish between weeds and flowers,” Palms Barber said. “They see it all as a source of food and turn whatever they draw from into something sweet and good. That's what we do with these men and women. There is good in them as well.”

The aims of Sweet Beginnings meshed with the Chicago Department of Aviation's efforts to make O'Hare more environmentally friendly.

The apiary is “right outside of the runway protection zone, which means the Federal Aviation Administration will not allow us to develop on that property,” Deputy Commissioner of Sustainability Amy Malick said.

The land, vegetated with prairie-type plants, proved a treasure trove for the bees, who are producing about 150 pounds of honey a hive, a jump from earlier projections.

“The location is so suitable for them, there's lots of food for them to forage. It's not an optimal location for people, but they like it just fine,” Malick said.

The project also is important for honeybee survival; the species has experienced a population drop in the last decade.

“It's a great way to provide a habitat for the bees, and at no cost to us,” Malick said.

In addition, the hives and prairie surroundings discourage birds that favor airport grass and can be a hazard for airplanes.

Sweet Beginnings employees make products from their honey harvest, including lotions, balms and creams. The website offers honey and related items for sale and is getting ready to launch a holiday line. And, Malick said, her department is working on plans to open honey kiosks at O'Hare and Midway International Airports.

There's been no issues with Sweet Beginnings staff members, who are trained and escorted by North Lawndale Employment Network staff, Malick said.

Not everyone is chosen as beekeepers, Palms Barber explained.

“We want to make sure it's someone who wants to turn their life around,” she said. “You have to want to contribute, you have to want to support your family and want to be a taxpayer.”

  More than 1 millions bees produce honey at the O’Hare International Airport apiary. George LeClaire/
  Curtis Camp, Sweet Beginnings team member, works the hives at O’Hare International Airport. George LeClaire/
  Head beekeeper John Hansen, right, checks a frame from a beehive with Holley Blackwell, general manager with Sweet Beginnings, left, and Curtis Camp. George LeClaire/
  Holley Blackwell, general manager with Sweet Beginnings, displays a frame from a beehive at O’Hare International Airport. George LeClaire/
  Bees produce honey for a variety of products at O’Hare International Airport. George LeClaire/
  Head beekeeper John Hansen, right, checks a hive with help from Sweet Beginnings team member Curtis Camp. George LeClaire/