Airport Beekeepers Get a Second Chance

This Chicago company helps ex-offenders learn job skills through beekeeping on the wild land around O'Hare airport.


bee_boyz_editEvery 10 days, Thad Smith enters a piece of land that is otherwise forbidden to most people: The empty acreage around Chicago’s O’Hare airport. It’s there that Smith and his crew from the Westside Bee Boyz tend to 75 beehives. Last year, he and his fellow beekeepers harvested 1,600 pounds of honey in the otherwise unoccupied land beneath O’Hare’s airspace. 

An international trend that began in Germany has spread to the U.S. as airports have begun to open their vacant land to bees and beekeepers. Airport apiaries in Quebec, Copenhagen, and Seattle have appeared in the New York Times and on Science Friday. But some of these collaborations are producing more than honey. They’re also creating jobs, helping to restore habitat, and giving some beekeepers a second chance.

By design, airports require long tracts of land for takeoff and landing strips and act as a buffer between the planes and the surrounding community. As a safety measure this excess land cannot be developed for human use. But for bees, it’s prime real estate.

In 2011, O’Hare Airport installed 28 beehives, making it the first airport in the U.S. to host an apiary. The project is part of its Green Initiatives Program, which includes an aeroponic garden, green roofs, construction recycling, and wetland restoration.

The beekeepers come from the North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN), a non-profit organization on the west side of Chicago. In addition to honey, the NLEN produces a line of honey-based skin care products through a business called Sweet Beginnings. The majority of the people working for Sweet Beginnings have spent at least some portion of their lives in prison. The company gives them a second chance, and a shot at a meaningful career.

NLEN is located in the North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago, an area where many residents face uphill battles accessing education and employment. In 2001, 57 percent of the population was involved in the justice system—either in jail, on parole or on probation. As NLEN executive director, Brenda Palms Barber’s job is to find employment for former inmates. “We knew we had to do something different to give them a hand to establish work skills,” says Barber.

After realizing how reluctant many area employers were to hire former prisoners, Barber decided to create a business of her own. A colleague had recommend beekeeping and honey production as one option, so in 2004 Barber started Sweet Beginnings. Then, four years ago, the Chicago Department of Aviation offered Sweet Beginnings airport land for their hives.

Because beekeeping is primarily taught in the field, it can be a good job for people who have struggled in the classroom. Employees also work in manufacturing, sales, and customer service.

Since it opened, Sweet Beginnings has hired 383 transitional employees and seen approximately 70 percent of them move on to gainful employment elsewhere. NLEN records show that the number of former Sweet Beginnings employees who return to a life of crime is below 10 percent compared to the national average of 40 percent and the Illinois average of 55 percent.

Thad Smith turned to the NLEN when he got out of prison at age 46. He was homeless, desperate, and living with a felony conviction on his record (a reality that keeps many ex-offenders out of work). Soon Smith started working with the bees, and things gradually started to turn around.

“I opened a hive and I just fell in love,” Smith wrote on his company website. “It’s so fascinating. I can just stand there and watch 60,000 individuals who are one entity, working toward one common goal. It is all about the colony, making sure they survive and find a way to work together.” Now he is the co-owner of Westside Bee Boyz and does contract work for Sweet Beginnings managing their airport hives.

Sweet Beginnings products are sold at Whole Foods stores, in gift shops, and online. Travelers passing through O’Hare can find their products in the market located just below the aeroponic garden in Terminal 3.

“Beekeeping has allowed me to help the community, provide jobs, and be a mentor,” Smith says. “The people I work with are like a colony of bees. [We’re] putting people to work and propagating the community of North Lawndale. There is not a day that goes by when I don’t learn something.”

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  1. Friday, May 29th, 2015
    What a fantastic venture. It brings life to otherwise barren land and gives parolees a chance to reclaim their own lives. Outstanding. So grateful that NLEN exists. Keep up the great work folks!
  2. Monday, June 1st, 2015
    Sweet Beginnings LLC and NLEN are very pleased that you chose to profile our important work helping returning citizens get a second chance through their work with honeybees, especially at our O’Hare Apiary. We were the first apiary to partner with an airport in the US and are so proud of that! We would like to clarify that after graduating from our job readiness training, Thad Smith was hired as our first apprentice beekeeper and was then contracted as described in your article. However, Mr. Smith is no longer with Sweet Beginnings. We are delighted at his success in turning his life around and wish him the best. Sweet Beginnings has a new head beekeeper, Cristian Petre, who has more than 20 years of beekeeping experience.