VIDEO: Beekeeping on the West Side

By Evan Garcia

Individuals out of prison often face obstacles in finding work and acclimating to civilian life.

The North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN) uses beekeeping to transition formerly incarcerated men into the workforce. The nonprofit operates a subsidiary called Sweet Beginnings, which harvests from several Chicago area apiaries to make and sell raw honey and honey-infused skin products.

As the business name suggests, the employees at Sweet Beginnings would otherwise face barriers in gaining employment due to their criminal backgrounds. This program gives them the chance to start anew. Jobs include gathering honey, packaging orders and selling products in retail stores like Whole Foods and Mariano’s.

The neighborhood needs the help. There have been seven homicides this year alone in North Lawndale. According to a 2001 report by demographics researcher Claritas Inc., 70 percent of men aged 18 to 45 have a criminal record in this area.

Thad Smith was released from prison in February 2013 after serving four months for check fraud. As a convicted felon at 46 years old, he decided to enroll in the NLEN’s U-Turn Permitted job training program, which offers financial counseling, conflict resolution, anger management and résumé building.

Smith displayed his leadership skills early. He was elected president of the program’s cohort and upon graduation in June 2013 was offered a job at the nonprofit’s self-described social enterprise, Sweet Beginnings. He’s been hooked on beekeeping ever since.

A swarm of Italian bees at the Sweet Beginnings' apiary in North Lawndale. The queen is the longer, black bee on the left. (Evan Garcia/Medill)
A swarm of Italian bees at the Sweet Beginnings’ apiary in North Lawndale. The queen is the longer, black bee on the left. (Evan Garcia/Medill)

“This little kid once told me, ‘a colony of bees is like a person with 50,000 muscles,’ and he’s right,” said Smith, who teaches beekeeping classes and does community outreach. “They’re all working together towards one common goal and that’s so fascinating to me.”

Last year, Smith started the WestSide Bee Boyz, a company specializing in urban beekeeping. That means managing beehives as well as selling beekeeper equipment and honey-based products.

“There are over 100,000 beekeepers in and around Chicago and there are no beekeeping supply stores in the area,” Smith said. “I don’t understand why not. I started the business originally because I felt I was being underpaid, but now it’s grown into something much more than that.”

Thad Smith started the WestSide Bee Boyz in 2014 as a beekeeping resource for local businesses and hobbyists. (Evan Garcia/Medill)
Thad Smith started the WestSide Bee Boyz in 2014 as a beekeeping resource for local businesses and hobbyists. (Evan Garcia/Medill)

Smith has been recruited to sell his honey at Whole Foods as a local vendor. This summer, the WestSide BeeBoyz will introduce consumers to their product Bella Beez Sparkling Honey Water in five Whole Foods stores. The company is planning to buy a building in the North Lawndale Area so they can empower and employ residents needing a second chance in life.

“Everything I’ve dreamt of has come to fruition,” Smith said. “It all depends on your attitude and outlook in life.”

Photo at top: Beekeeper Thad Smith at the North Lawndale Employment Network’s apiary. (Evan Garcia/Medill)
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