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 school teachers, doulas, home school moms and urban farmers never expected to inspect 12 beehives at 8:30am on a hot weekend morning with sweat dripping from their faces. But what started as a project to educate children about agriculture and has grown into a sisterhood thanks to Chanika Forté, who made it her mission to empower, support and educate 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, only recently did she realize that 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. “It’s 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.”
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Farming as a way to support families
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 her urban farm near Watkins Road and Third Drive. She was there when the gate opened and there until it closed.
“When they closed the gate, I thought, ‘Can you please keep it open for another 15 minutes,'” she told a crowd during a panel celebrating black farmers at Grassrootz Bookstore and Juice Bar.
She 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 someone else’s need to decide what foods to feed their kids and worrying about feeding their kids healthy options.
She 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.
From urban farmer to beekeeper
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%.
During an introductory beekeeping class at Honey Hive Farms, where she learned honeybee biology and best practices for colony management, she said she was nervous. But she calmed down when she pulled a frame out of the box to examine the bees and felt them tremble in her hands.
“It was like this vibrational frequency that I’ve never felt before,” she said, adding that at that point she knew she wanted to work with bees all the time.
After her training, Forté added four beehives to the nonprofit’s urban farms, including a swarm of bees she caught on the Human Services Campus.
When she received her first personal queen bee, Oshun, in 2019, she was “super confident” in her beekeeping skills, so much so that she only wore gloves when she went to inspect the hive.
“I wanted to have all the experiences and I learned after a while that that’s not the safest thing to do,” said the 41-year-old.
When she fell in love with bees, she started teaching people who sought help from the nonprofit the importance of beekeeping.
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Inequality in beekeeping
While Forté was learning about bees, she came across the so-called Africanized honey bee.
“It’s like people can’t see the blatant racism/big intolerance in the term,” she wrote in a blog post.
She is not alone; scholars say the word resonates with racial fear, comparing media coverage of African bees to coverage of black people. She doesn’t deny that African bees can be aggressive, but said it’s problematic to assume a bee’s genetic makeup without doing tests and “can kill those bees.”
The Africanized honeybees that arrived in the United States in the 1990s are descendants of the 26 African queen bees who escaped the Warwick Kerr experimental beekeeping center in Brazil and bred with European bees. Kerr had sought to breed bees that would be more efficient honey producers and better suited to a warmer tropical climate.
“Like labeling humans, we’ve come to a point where labeling different kinds of bees has been approached very much in the same way. The difference in the descriptions of different kinds of bees plays a role in how we as Americans think, feel and react.” on the ‘Africanized Killer Bee,'” she wrote.
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.
She reached out to other black beekeepers, posted in a local beekeepers group on Facebook, and asked if there were any other colored beekeepers in Arizona. She said the reactions to the post surprised her.
She said some people called her a breeder and that she shouldn’t use the group to look for black beekeepers. She also learned that there were only two – herself and a man who lives in San Tan Valley.
“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 links 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.
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Teaching people of color to embrace agriculture and keep bees
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 creating 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.
Then the pandemic broke out and schools went remote, effectively putting the program on hold indefinitely.
One day Forté asked her best friend, Talibah X, if she would like to participate in a beekeeping class if she would teach it. She said yes and Baehive was born.
When she taught her first beekeeping course at Spaces of Opportunity in south Phoenix, she doubted herself. Although both her parents are teachers and she had set up a curriculum to teach a full house of children about agriculture in St. Vincent de Paul, teaching adults was different and intimidating.
“I didn’t know that day would lead to today,” she said, adding that since then she has trained nearly 30 women to be beekeepers.
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 ranged in age from 7 to 65 years old. The youngest beekeeper is her best friend’s 8-year-old daughter, who “took to” the bees.” The oldest is known as mommy Rachel.
She also teaches a two-day mini beekeeping course that focuses on the basics of beekeeping.
“There are more black beekeepers in Arizona now,” she said. “And a lot of them are women.”
‘Future Baehive looks like a national movement’
Forté also partners with Local First Arizona to manage the Community Tire Garden, renamed Heart and Soil.
The garden will serve as a collaborative workplace for women and is expected to open in the fall.
Over the next five years, Forté plans to buy 10 hectares of land where she can keep bees and grow food to feed the community. She envisions a community center in that land where she can educate others and hold events.
“The future for Baehive looks like a national movement,” Forté said. “Hopefully in five years it will look like a huge sorority.”
How do you support Baehive
BaeHive honey is sold at Grassrootz Bookstore and Juice Bar in downtown Phoenix for $10 to $20, depending on the size and type of honey. Forté sells ginger-infused honey, hibiscus-infused honey, garlic-infused honey, and cinnamon-infused honey in 8- to 16-ounce jars. A portion of the proceeds will go to grants that help women pay for beekeeping training.
To sign up for a two or six week beekeeping course, visit Baehive’s website: baehive.org.
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Reach the reporter at Jonmaesha.Beltran@gannett.com or on Instagram @Jonmaesha.