Visiting a Sweet Beginnings Apiary

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower.
~ Isaac Watts, Against Idleness

This week the Ladies of WIN were given an apiary tour at Sweet Beginnings, since our Candy Gala helped raise enough funds for a hive.

Bees have been documented as early as 13,000 BC (on rock paintings), and beekeeping was cultivated in several early cultures, including Greece and Egypt, with accounts in 1800 to 1700 BC by Roman writers Virgil, Gaius Julius Hyginus, Varro and Columella. You can read more about its history here.

General Manager and second head beekeeper Kelvin Greenwood provided a tour of the North Lawndale Employment Network’s location.

The North Lawndale Employment Network provides assistance to formerly incarcerated individuals. Their U-Turn Permitted program offers four weeks of workforce-readiness training, including interview skills, resume and cover letter development, job placement assistance, job retention support, and one week of anger management. The center offers a computer lab at which program participants can commence the job search.

We peeked in on an interview preparation workshop, in which job seekers were taught how their behavior is assessed within 10 seconds of the interview and what nonverbal cues they need to be aware of to make a positive impression.

The center also has income support specialists who provides credit repair, budget management and financial management assistance. Since the U-Turn Permitted program is so successful, the center is also offering U-Turn Permitted Express, a three-day program for chronically unemployed people who have not been incarcerated. “Express” is offered every 2nd and 4th Monday of the month.

Those who graduate the U-Turn program are eligible to apply for work at Sweet Beginnings. At Sweet Beginnings, the trainee is then put on subsidized employment for 90 days, after which they become eligible for non-subsidized employment.

Kelvin himself is a boomerang who worked at Sweet Beginnings about four years ago, then left for employment elsewhere, but recently returned to Sweet Beginnings as a team leader. One U-Turn graduate saved up for 2 years when he gained employment, and was able to start his own livery service business.

“We ought to do good to others as simply as a horse runs,
or a bee makes honey,
or a vine bears grapes season after season
without thinking of the grapes it has borne.”
~ Marcus Aurelius

At Sweet Beginnings, founded in 2004, employees are introduced to inventory management, quality control, sales, marketing, and all aspects of creating the Beelove line.

Per their web site, “Sweet Beginnings is a wholly owned subsidiary of the North Lawndale Employment Network and offers full-time transitional jobs for formerly incarcerated individuals and others with significant barriers to employment in a green industry – the production and sales of all-natural skin care products featuring its own urban honey.

Sweet Beginnings workers care for the bees and hives, harvest honey, make beeline® products, package and ship products, track inventory, fill product orders, and sell at retail outlets and special events.

These training and work experience modalities transfer to market positions in manufacturing, food service, distribution, warehousing, hospitality, customer service, and more. The recidivism rate for former Sweet Beginnings employees is below 4%, compared to the national average of 65% and the Illinois average of 55%.”

The program has earned numerous awards and local recognition.


There are 19 hives at Lawndale site, 20 hives at Cook County Jail-transitional program, 7 at Wilbur Wright College and 50 hives at O’Hare Airport. They hope to establish another apiary at the Tinley Park wetlands, which would accommodate 200 hives and a designated flower source space.

We didn’t get into the specifics of beehive structures, but being the nerd (or is it geek?) I am I looked it up online and found this cool diagram.

The four to five tiers at the Sweet Beginnings apiary generate 100 pounds of honey. Of this, 50% is harvested to be used for Beelove, and 50% is left for the bees to overwinter with. Each colony consists of 20,000 to 30,000 bees. The colony–or hive–has one queen. 60 percent of the bee population includes female worker bees, and 40 percent are male drones. The workers gather pollen and store honey, and can live between 2 to 6 months. The drones mate with the queen and then die. The queen produces 2,000 to 3,000 eggs a day.

The social structure of bees is the stuff of a drama series. Kelvin said there have been queen fights to the death to determine who would rule a hive. Generally, a new queen leaves, taking a swarm with her, to colonize elsewhere. As I learned more at home, I found this account of bees and honey as tactical tools in warfare.

Now lest you think of bees as mean stinging machines, be aware that they generally only attack when provoked, such as having their hives threatened. Swarms are more docile, as this blog explains:

“A swarm may contain from 1,500 to 30,000 bees including,
workers, drones, and a queen.
Swarming is an instinctive part of the annual life cycle
of a honey bee colony.
It provides a mechanism for the colony to reproduce itself. …
The cohesiveness of the swarm is due to their attraction
to a pheromone produced by the queen. …
A honey bee swarm
has neither young nor food stores
and will not exhibit defensive behavior unless unduly provoked.

If you spot a swarm near your home you can get it removed by experts, who will likely give it a new hive to colonize.

We left the apiary to enter the kitchen, where the honey extraction takes place. Around October, harvest season begins, and the frames with honeycombs are removed from the hive. The frames are decapped, and placed in the extractor, which is spun to extract the honey by centrifugal force.

The honey is caught in buckets, which then are processed into the Beelove product line. The products include natural honey (of course!) as well as natural skin and body care products.

My favorite was the spa basket, which includes body cream, hand and foot butter balm, lip balm, scrub and raw honey. I look forward to investing in this when my other bath products are used up.

The shelves also included body lotion, shower gel and soap. In addition to honey, ingredients include shea butter, avocado oil and silk protein.

The Beelove line is available in 18 midwest area Whole Foods stores and will also be available in multiple stores at Chicago O’Hare and Midway Airports. The Ritz-Carlton is also in talks to carry amenity size products. You can shop for the Beelove skin care products online as well.

I’m so glad we got to learn more about this valuable organization, which provides us ladies with wonderful natural products to beautify ourselves, while providing a new life to people who genuinely want to contribute to the world in spite of their past history. Each person I’ve met who is associated with Sweet Beginnings has been gregarious, courteous and passionate about their work.

As Brenda Palms Barber mentioned during the History Month panel, these people have overcome so much stigma and already ‘served their time’. Coming from a ‘squeaky-clean’ background, interacting with this organization has been a growth experience for me and my prejudices, and I’ll happily consume honey on a regular basis to support Sweet Beginnings in the future.

“There are certain pursuits which, if not wholly poetic and true,
do at least suggest a nobler and
finer relation to nature than we know.
The keeping of bees, for instance.”
~ Henry David Thoreau

If you’re interested in beekeeping, there is a plethora of links with advice out there, a sampling of which is below.

I look forward to researching the creators of my beeswax further, now that my head is buzzing with information.

“Our treasure lies in the beehive of our knowledge.
We are perpetually on the way thither,
being by nature winged insects and honey gatherers of the mind.”
~ Friedrich Nietzsche

ADDENDUM: As of March 10, 2013, I no longer support the WIN Board and its actions. However, I do support small business, women-owned businesses, and the gracious hosts of past WIN events.

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