Rosa Aragon is juggling three jobs and being a single mother to her two sons. But each Thursday, the struggles of daily life wash away as she and five other women tend to buzzing colonies of bees.
These self-described Reinas de Miel, or Honey Queens, look after hives on a farm in Lakeville as part of a program aimed at getting low-income women involved in beekeeping. Urban Ventures, a local faith-based nonprofit, hired the women part time for $15 an hour to supervise its bees and learn the craft of making honey.
Beekeeping is empowering the women, said Susana Espinosa de Sygulla, Urban Ventures vice president of Latino outreach.
“Little by little, we are breaking the cycle of hopelessness,” she said. “I love the transformation with the women.”
Each of the women are also handling personal challenges. Aragon, 46, has one child with Down syndrome, and Dolores Montes, 38, is saving up for her three children and their futures. Most of the women have jobs cooking and cleaning for families in Minnesota.
“It’s a big help for my family,” Montes said. “The more I earn from beekeeping, the more I will save for my kids’ education.”
Before beekeeping, the women were taking part in Urban Ventures’ program to support Latino families.
They came together in March to become beekeepers through a partnership with the University of Minnesota’s Bee Squad. During the spring, the Reinas de Miel took an apiculture, or beekeeping, class at the U, and now are in the hands-on portion of the program, where they meet each Thursday to care for the colonies.
For most, the program was a first. Espinosa de Sygulla said a few were scared to go near the buzzing insects just a few months ago. But on Thursday, the women put on their white beekeeper suits and went straight into the horde to check on their colonies.
As the bees buzzed around them, the Reinas de Miel calmly lifted their boxes and examined the hives. Along with the help of Bridget Mendel, a U Bee Squad mentor and teacher, they searched the boxes for honey and checked to see if the queen bees were producing eggs. The women used a smoker to keep the bees focused on eating honey so they could open the boxes safely. During the inspection, a few of the women let out screams. Montes was stung three times Thursday.
Her first sting
Leslie Nicolas, 16, had never been stung until Thursday. Along with her duties as a beekeeper, Nicolas volunteers at the Urban Ventures farm and farmers market. The bees work to pollinate the farm, where volunteers pick the produce and sell it at the organization’s farmers market.
“It’s amazing how everything is connected,” she said.
Only three of the women, including Nicolas, are bilingual. Each time their U Bee Squad instructor explains an aspect of beekeeping to them, they instantly start translating into Spanish for one another.
“We are trying to understand everything step by step, together,” Nicolas said.
The beekeeping program for the Reinas de Miel is not the organization’s first bee program. As part of the nonprofit’s CityKid Food endeavor, Minneapolis youths also learn about bees and beekeeping. The program started about two years ago and was sponsored by General Mills. The U Bee Squad provided a $50,000 grant to support the Honey Queen’s efforts.
Rebecca Masterman, U Bee Squad associate program director, said Urban Ventures is bringing attention to the importance of bees.
“It’s not very accessible to everyone in the community,” she said. “That’s why this project is so important, because we were able to receive funds and bring it to the group of women.”
Mark-Peter Lundquist, Urban Ventures vice president of outreach, said the organization hopes to expand the program and offer jobs to more women.
“I go back thinking these women in particular, a year ago, would have never imagined working with bees and getting paid for it,” he said.
Honey in the salsa
The women plan on selling their honey at the Urban Ventures farmers market. There’s been enough honey that they’re also brainstorming ways to incorporate it into a salsa recipe that they can sell.
The bee boxes on the organization’s farm were dripping with honey Thursday.
“With bees, you never really know how much honey you are going to get,” Mendel said. “We are actually going to get honey this year.”
The women will host a booth along with the U Bee Squad to promote beekeeping at the annual Pollinator Party on Thursday at the Lyndale Park Gardens.
Julia Mayorquin, 25, said she is proud to be a part of the group.
“It is a great opportunity for us to get together as women,” she said.
The Reinas de Miel have created a colony of their own in a way. The women have grown close over the months, and everyone knows one another’s stories. Every Thursday, Aragon wakes up excited to get to see the bees. She said seeing all their hard work makes her work as a single mother not seem so difficult.
“I would like to do this forever,” she said.