A black beekeeper in Phoenix and her Baehive Sisterhood

PHOENIX (AP) — Every other Sunday, a group of women wearing black T-shirts that read “Baehive Sisterhood” don white bee suits behind the Orchard Learning Community Center in south Phoenix.

The educators, doulas, homeschool moms and urban farmers never expected to be inspecting 12 beehives at 8:30 a.m. on a hot weekend morning with sweat dripping from their faces.

But what started as a project to educate children about agriculture has grown into a sisterhood thanks to Chanika Forté, who made it her mission to empower, support and empower women of color beekeeping.


Since graduating from Forté’s honeybee course, bees have become a part of their lives.

Some women have failed and some have successfully tried to catch a swarm of bees, others now have beehives in their backyards, but all women have learned the benefits of being surrounded by hives.

After being fired from a position as a district analyst at U-Haul in 2010, Forté returned to school to become a life coach. She followed in the footsteps of the women before her when she enrolled at the Southwest Institute of Healing Arts in 2014 and started urban farming.

For seven generations, the women in her family farm in Alabama and in her home state of Michigan. But it wasn’t until recently that Forté realized she “hadn’t just stumbled into farming.”

I’m a replica of the women who came before me, and I didn’t even know it,” she said. “That is comforting, because I know there are times when I doubt myself, and I will never doubt myself again. I know I’m doing what I have to do. I know it’s in my DNA to do this – and I’m going to drive it until the wheels fall off.”

Forté found her way into farming while completing an internship with St. Vincent de Paul in college. The mother of four never wanted to leave his urban farm. She was there when the gate opened and there until it closed.

“As they closed the gate, I thought, ‘Can you please keep it open for another 15 minutes,'” she recently told a crowd during a panel celebrating black farmers.

Forté found purpose when she harvested food for families going through things she went through as a single mother raising children in housing projects. She remembered standing in the bus waiting to go to the grocery store and discuss what bills to pay. On the farm, she knew she was eliminating anyone else’s need to decide what foods to feed their kids and worrying about feeding their kids healthy options.

Forté spent nearly two years at St. Vincent de Paul as part of AmeriCorps’ Public Alliances apprenticeship program, which paid her a stipend to work with the nonprofit. In 2017, she was hired as Urban Farms Program Manager and Community Engagement Coordinator. At the time, she managed the Human Service Campus urban farm. Two years later, she was promoted and now manages all three city farms.

During her journey, she noticed a lack of diversity in the industry, so she sought to empower women to engage in sustainable beekeeping and gardening as a way to generate additional income and teach their communities the importance of farming.

In 2017, Forté was looking for a way to increase production at St. Vincent de Paul farm without adding chemicals, when she discovered that adding bees to the farm can increase production from 10 to 20%.

After her training, 41-year-old Forté added four beehives to the nonprofit’s urban farms, including a swarm of bees she caught on the Human Services Campus.

When she fell in love with bees, she started teaching people who sought help from the nonprofit the importance of beekeeping.

Forté also noticed a lack of diversity in the bee world.

“How many black beekeepers have you seen?” asked Forté, adding that she had never met a black beekeeper before she became one.

Forté wanted to connect with other black beekeepers by posting to a local beekeeper group on Facebook and asking if there were any other colored beekeepers in Arizona. She said the reactions to the post surprised her.

“There are not many black beekeepers and one of the reasons is access to land,” Forté said. She also said there is a gap between black people and agriculture because of its link to slavery in the United States.

“It was used against us and we don’t want to be associated with something that was used to control us,” she said.

In 2020 she wanted to change that.

Forté launched ABC Mobile (short for Agriculture, Bees and Composting) in 2019. She wanted to build something to pass on to her children and she thought of a non-profit organization where she would travel to schools in a converted school bus to teach children about pollinators, how to grow seeds and the importance of composting would become part of her legacy.

In the fall, Forté runs a six-week course in which women learn how to identify different bees, how to do a hive inspection and the history of beekeeping in Africa. Her students range in age from 7 to 65 years.

“There are more black beekeepers in Arizona now,” she said. “And a lot of them are women.”

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