By Rachel Noll (email) | DOC Communications
August 15, 2020 was National Honey Bee Day, an annual celebration shared by beekeepers and beekeeping clubs and associations across the country.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants and about 35 percent of the world’s food crops depend on pollinators to reproduce.
In fact, the honey bee is responsible for $15 billion in U.S. agricultural crops each year. As stressors on honey bees and other pollinators increase, more and more Americans are investing in learning about and caring for honey bees.
The Sustainability in Prisons Project, a partnership between Washington Department of Corrections and The Evergreen State College, do their part to help rebuild the honey bee population. Currently, as part of this effort, 11 out of 12 of the state’s correctional facilities have a beekeeping program.
Cedar Creek’s Honey Bee Program
Cedar Creek Corrections Center is home to the oldest Washington State Corrections bee program. Although Cedar Creek does not currently have hives on-site, they plan to bring them back soon.
For now, Cedar Creek beekeepers, incarcerated individuals trained and certified in beekeeping, keep two hives on McNeil Island in Pierce County Washington. Not far from the site of the former McNeil Island Corrections Center. McNeil Island has been a near-perfect space to introduce honey bees as humans have very little footprint on the island now, wildlife are free to roam and fruit trees, flowers and blackberry brambles are abundant.
Ownership and management of the island is very complex, which inspires a high level of partnership and collaboration to ensure a successful program. Partners include a team of volunteers, expert beekeepers from the community, staff and administration from Cedar Creek, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington Department of Natural Resources and Correctional Industries. Washington State Beekeepers Association via the Sustainability in Prisons Project staff at the Evergreen State College provides formal beekeeping education at Cedar Creek.
Laurie Pyne, leads the team of volunteer, expert beekeepers who teach formal beekeeping education classes at Cedar Creek and manage the bee program on McNeil Island.
“This has been a fabulous program,” Pyne said. “Being a part of this program positively changes the individuals participating… It makes me proud to see how far they have come.”
Each facility has a Corrections employee responsible for coordination and oversight of the program. At Cedar Creek, that person is Correctional Program Manager Jean Anderson.
“Programs like this are important,” Anderson said. “Not just for the benefits of giving back, but because this is a valuable skill and career they can take with them on release.”
Clallam Bay’s Bee Program
At Clallam Bay Corrections Center, Classification Counselor Faye Nicholas, manages the bee program. She has long been an advocate for the program, but it is only since starting the program at Clallam Bay that she received experience as a beekeeper. Once Nicholas became responsible for the program, she chose to take the classes alongside the incarcerated individuals.
Now Nicholas is able to manage the incarcerated beekeepers from a place of knowledge, and supervises their interactions with the hives. Recently, Nicholas said, the beekeepers have been concerned about one of their four hives. They check in on the bees regularly, and they quickly notice when something does not seem right. They quickly determined that the queen had either died, or left the hive.
A solution to this, Nicholas said, can be combining eggs from one hive into the other, in hopes that a queen will hatch from the added eggs. The beekeepers performed the transfer and performed routine checks on the other hives.
Chad, an incarcerated beekeeper at Clallam Bay, shared that he cares about the bees and becomes concerned if something doesn’t seem right. Their program has “donated three swarms to nature” meaning they abandoned the hive box and went to create a new one elsewhere.
“At first, I was disappointed,” said Chad. “I got attached to them, but then I realized we were doing even more good by letting them go.”
Chad has been with the program since it began six years ago. He now teaches several classes to other incarcerated individuals, including new beekeepers joining the program. He states that being able to share the excitement, and feel a sense of purpose while doing so is very rewarding.
Another beekeeper at Clallam Bay, Alex agrees that the beekeeping program helps to provide a sense of purpose.
“I was a little bit scared at first,” Alex said. “But the first time I opened a hive and looked at the pattern of the eggs, it felt magical.”
Alex went on to say that he enjoys telling his friends and family about the importance of bees and likes to help others tackle their own bee-related fear.
Statewide COVID-19 Impacts
With the restrictions in place due to COVID-19, a few programs have moved their hives off-site; they are temporarily hosted by expert, partner beekeepers in the community. Other programs, like Clallam Bay, have shifted to peer-led education, and as a result can manage for now as a self-supported program.
A sense of purpose, the ability to change lives and a chance to help the environment are overwhelming themes when speaking to Corrections staff and individuals incarcerated in Corrections facilities, involved in the beekeeping program. Together, staff and incarcerated beekeepers are able to learn together and find a purpose in the important work they are doing.
More information on the statewide beekeeping programs in correctional facilities can be found here