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Buzzing With Success: Bees Help Inmates Learn Marketable Skills, Build Self-Esteem

August 31, 2015

By Andrew Garber,

DOC Communications

Jack Boysen, an inmate at Cedar Creek Corrections Center, tends to a honey-bee hive.

Jack Boysen, an inmate at Cedar Creek Corrections Center, tends to a honey-bee hive. (Photo by Andrew Garber)

LITTLEROCK – Jack Boysen grew up afraid of bees, yet here he is sticking his hand in the middle of a buzzing hive.

The puffy, white, head-to-toe beekeeper suit he’s wearing helps, as does a hand-held smoker that puts the bees in a subdued state. “When you don’t use smoke, you don’t have a good day,” Boysen advises.

Still, Boysen says he never would have contemplated walking into a swarm of bees a few years ago.

Being in prison changed his mind.

“I’ve had a lot of jobs in DOC. Janitor, cook, plumber, electrician and out of all the jobs I’ve had over the years, this is the most rewarding because you feel like you are doing something not only for your own benefit, but also the rest of the world,” he said.

“You have the opportunity to actually advance yourself when you get out of here,” said Boysen, 29, who is projected for release in 2017. “You have the potential to turn this into a career when you get out.”

The Cedar Creek Corrections Center runs a beekeeper training program in conjunction with the Sustainability in Prisons Project, (SPP), a partnership between the Department of Corrections and The Evergreen State College, and the Olympia Beekeepers Association.

Boysen learned about the program from his counselor and signed up with another inmate at the prison to take a six-week course last year that teaches the basics of beekeeping. Since then, he’s been helping tend bee hives at the prison.

The work involves donning his white suit once a week, with its tight-fitting gloves and netted hood that zips shut to keep out the bees. Then Boysen and another offender light up a metal smoker that burns wood chips or pine needles, and they head for the hives.

They puff smoke and gingerly pull out wooden racks that contain the bees and their honey. The inmates are checking on the health of the bees, which are prone to various pests and diseases. They also want to see if a new hive is forming.

“Through monitoring, we discovered a hive was starting to split and they actually created a queen cell and were creating a new queen,” Boysen said recently, while holding a rack crawling with bees to look for a queen. “So we took that out of the box and made a new hive out of it because when they do that, it means they’re getting ready to swarm.”

During the summer, the inmates and a correctional officer, Glenn Epling, who assists them, take honey-laden racks to a small centrifuge in a shed behind the prison that spins just fast enough to force out the honey without damaging the cones. The racks are then put back into the hives for the bees to refill.

One worker bee, which lives around six weeks, produces about 1⁄12th of a teaspoon of honey during its lifetime, said Laurie Pyne, with the Olympia Beekeepers Association. So if you ever buy an 8-ounce bottle of honey in a store, it likely took the lives of more than 500 bees to fill the jar.

Boysen thinks about the living he could make from raising bees.

“It’s kind of hard for us to get jobs out there, if you have an extensive record,” said Boysen, who is serving time for multiple convictions including theft and possession of a controlled substance. “With this, for a couple hundred dollars you can get a hive together.

“Then you get two hives and three. You can get almost five gallons of honey off one hive in a year. If you market it in small honey bears, it actually gives you a pretty decent income,” he said, while pulling out a rack to take to the centrifuge.

“We’re basically robbing the bees,” he said. “But this is definitely legal.”

Epling, who tends several hives at his own home in addition to working with offenders at the prison, said that two inmates who were released last year are now raising bees on the outside. “And it sounds like we have a future here with these inmates,” he said of the offenders he’s teaching now. “It’s a good thing. It works for everybody.”

Joslyn Rose Trivett, with the Sustainability in Prisons Project, said one of the SPP’s goals is to teach offenders marketable skills they can use on the outside, as well as help build up their self-esteem while in prison.

“A lot of the people who are incarcerated are struggling with the feeling of being thrown away and discarded by society,” she said.

The beekeeper program and others like it can show offenders “there is value in every material and every resource and every animal and plant and certainly in every person,” she said.

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