Most maximum security prisons contain similar features within their fortified walls: rows of cells, prison guards and convicted criminals locked up for any number of reasons. However, at several prisons in Georgia, you might hear a buzzing coming from within the walls. Since 2014, the Georgia Beekeepers Association has pioneered a prison beekeeping program, teaching inmates the ins and outs of raising bees, all behind bars.

For the inmates in the program, the benefits of beekeeping are numerous. Inmates get the chance to learn a new skill that could help them find employment if and when they’re released. But beyond the educational benefits, beekeeping provides a more intangible perk — it gives people hope.

Students in the beekeeping class at Dooly State Prison. Photo courtesy Ben Rouse.

A number of [inmates] have come up to me and said ‘You’ve given me hope now. I didn’t have hope before,’” said Bear Kelley, former president of the Georgia Beekeepers Association. “That’s worth a million dollars to me right there, that they all of a sudden are different people. Now they have something they want to keep alive.”

The bees get booked

The Prison Beekeeping program began when Kelley heard that an inmate at Smith State Prison in Glennville, Georgia, was teaching a beekeeping class. Kelley initiated a partnership between the University of Georgia Honey Bee Lab and the Georgia Beekeepers Association to help the beekeeping program grow.

Kelley teamed up with Jennifer Berry, the lab manager for the UGA Honey Bee Program, and Gary Lister, the director of Vocational and Post-Secondary Education at the Georgia Department of Corrections. They organized a pallet of bees to be delivered to the prison along with books and donations, and recruited mentors and volunteers from local beekeeping clubs.

Since its founding, the Georgia Prison Beekeeping program has added five more prisons, including a women’s prison. Through its partnership with the UGA Honey Bee Lab, around 80 inmates have become certified beekeepers, Berry said. These inmates not only tend bees and collect honey, but also are ambassadors for the honeybee industry, giving a voice to these threatened insects.

“A number of [inmates] have come up to me and said ‘You’ve given me hope now. I didn’t have hope before,’” said Bear Kelley, former president of the Georgia Beekeepers Association.

Berry said many of the inmates have never had anything to take care of or call their own, so the honeybees become like pets. Just like a family dog, these bees are something they have to work hard to take care of and sustain. The honeybees depend on the beekeepers to stay alive, and the beekeepers come to depend on the bees as well.

“They become extremely compassionate and protective of these bees and these colonies,” Berry said “I think that’s something that is really important — they love something.”

The thought of inmates in maximum security prisons having access to metal hive tools and smokers might be a daunting one, but Berry found that the inmates were “compassionate and eager to learn.”

“Once I got in there, I realized that these are just folks who screwed up at one point in their life,” Berry said.  

The Prison Beekeeping program operates a class at Lee Arrendale State Prison, a women’s facility in Raoul, Georgia, where around 20 women were involved in the first beekeeping class.

Julia Mahood, a Georgia master beekeeper and Georgia Beekeepers Association committee chair for the prison program, teaches the class at the women’s facility.

“The women who participate are the most grateful people I’ve ever worked with in my life. They are super enthusiastic, they absolutely love the bees and the beekeeping, they’re so devoted to the program,” Mahood said.

According to Mahood, the beekeeping class has inspired a strong interest in honeybees and beekeeping not only among the inmates, but within the prison staff as well. The beekeeping students help raise awareness about threats to honeybee survival, including diseases, climate change and loss of habitat.

Beekeepers at Smith State prison. Photo courtesy of Ben Rouse.

“Every beekeeper in the program is a bee ambassador and they talk about how everyone wants to learn about the bees from them,” Mahood said. “It’s been great to raise general awareness about honeybees.”

Prisoners, honeybees, and art

UGA Idea Lab Mini Grant recipient and Masters of Fine Arts student Cristina Echezarreta has been working in close conjunction with the Georgia Prison Beekeepers program and the UGA honeybee lab in order to explore the similarities of prison systems and bee systems.  

Echezarreta had taken notice of the peculiar system of honeybee democracy. When honeybees want to leave their hive and scout out a new location, they share information with one another and come to a collective decision.

“It’s not just about the queen bee and she makes all the rules, it’s more so about the collective,” Echezarreta said.

Echezarreta took this idea and put it in practice within prisons.

“The way that relates in an artistic sense is how can we get individuals within prison systems to mimic that kind of behavior,” Echezarreta said. “How can inmates and just people work together to create one commonality, one project?”

Echezarreta takes photos at the prisons and helps gather supplies so inmates can create artwork together and paint hives, working together and helping each other, much like a colony of honeybees.

“They become extremely compassionate and protective of these bees and these colonies,” Berry said “I think that’s something that is really important — they love something.”

Through her work in Georgia prisons, Echezarreta said she enjoys the collaborative aspect of the project, which is a change from her solo projects.

“This is more of a different project, a more socially engaged project, a more collaborative project rather than me just being in my studio,” Echezarreta said.

Echezarreta said working with the Prison Beekeeping program has helped her learn to not stereotype and to see things from different perspectives.

Threats to survival

Just like honeybees themselves, the Georgia Prison Beekeeping program faces threats to its survival. Kelley says it comes down the problem of money, and that the program would benefit from the hiring of a state apiarist who can take up the reins for the Prison Beekeeping program. This person would coordinate volunteers and ensure the continuation of the program.

“The person who’s out doing this can visit the wardens, sites and clubs to coordinate and link all this together as a state program,” Kelley said.

The Prison Beekeeping program relies on dedicated volunteers to travel to the prisons and help teach the beekeeping classes, but Berry said it’s easy for volunteers to get worn out.

Their reward is seeing how they’re changing these lives. At the same time, it’s very tiring,” Berry said.

Although the program faces challenges, many other states have taken notice of these beekeeping classes and reached out to the Georgia Beekeepers Association to get information on how to start classes in their own prisons.

A label on a jar of honey that was produced at Smith State Prison. Photo courtesy of Ben Rouse.

“A number of other states — Illinois, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oregon and a couple of others — literally called me up and said ‘I heard about what you’re doing, tell me about it,’” Kelley said.  “The word’s out all over the country about what we’re doing.”

The Prison Beekeeping program strives to make its classes as sustainable as possible in all aspects, whether that’s raising queen bees that can be used by the facilities, to having inmates who’ve been certified teach classes themselves. Through this, the students can become the masters — literally. Inmates who have become certified beekeepers can work their way up to the master level of beekeeping, ensuring that they’ll carry with them appreciation for bees into the future and pass it on to fellow students. That way, honeybees — and hope — can continue thriving behind bars.

Written by Jordan Meaker