bee stories

Mentoring the mentor: bees behind bars

My first opportunity to teach beekeeping occurred at a state prison. I had volunteered at the prison for several years as a farm consultant. The inmates grew much of their own produce, composted their kitchen waste, raised red worms, and maintained an extensive greenhouse. Twice a week I taught them how to test soil fertility, wrap cauliflowers, and control aphids with ladybugs. I enjoyed the work, but when the prison needed a bee advisor, I jumped—turnip seeds paled in comparison to honey bees.

Bees behind bars

Whereas some of the gardens had been “inside the fence” (a razor-wire frosted chain-link affair) the beehives were outside. Working “outside the fence” meant I was assigned specially selected “short” inmates. Nothing to do with their stature, short meant they were near their release date and less likely to bolt.

Working with the public (me) was part of their preparation for release. For them, learning a skill was secondary to associating with people who were not guards or other prisoners, something these inmates would soon find themselves having to do. I had been trained and retrained on how to work with prisoners and my background had been checked so many times it was wearing thin.

My first subjects

I was waiting at the admin building wearing my bee jacket and security i.d. when my first two “beekeepers” were escorted through the fence and patted down. One, thin with dreadlocks, stared right through me as though I were vapor. The second, an enormous beefy guy, wore a tank top that revealed a lacework of ships, daggers, hearts, snakes, and vines undulating across his skin.

“My name is Rusty” I said as I unlocked the bee shed.

“So?” said Dreadlocks.

“So what’s yours?” I said.

His face puckered as if he were eating lemons, but he said nothing.

“Bryan,” Tattoos muttered. “That’s Bryan. I’m Clyde.” Then he spat.

Oh effing wonderful, I thought. Bryan and Clyde. How could this happen? I picked out the largest bee suit we had and gave it to Clyde. I turned to Bryan. “What size?”

“Whatever,” he said, so I selected one and handed it to him.

“Don’t need it,” he snapped. He crossed his arms and refused to touch it.

“Whatever,” I echoed, and gave it to Clyde to carry.

It was a glorious spring day, unseasonably warm, and the bees were in rare form, darting in and out of their hives humming like a track hoe. I was telling my charges that we would open the hives so they could see what was going on in there. We approached the hives from the rear, and as we got closer I could feel them lag behind.

People say guns are equalizers, but there is nothing like a robust beehive to separate the men from the boys. I turned toward my students. “Well, come on. You can’t see from there,” I said. I could feel the power subtly shift.

Opening the hives

Bryan and Clyde stood motionless while I struggled to open the first hive. Weapons of minor destruction are not allowed on prison grounds and no exception is made for hive tools. I had to break open hives sealed with six months’ worth of propolis with my bare hands. Although Tattoos could probably juggle bowling balls, he moved not one of his vine-wrapped muscles to help. With sudden inspiration, I pulled on my veil, put a stone in my glove, and gave the telescoping cover a good whack.

The lid broke free and incensed bees erupted from the hive into a sort of mushroom cloud, gray and lethal. This fog of stingers had a marvelous effect on Bryan and Clyde: they ran. Just as they were hightailing it across the yard, a prison guard with a loaded gun and a shiny car rolled up (not too close) and lowered his window a centimeter, not even enough to shoot through. “Any problem here?” he hollered.

I glanced at my cowering charges who were now eagerly yanking on their bee suits. I tried not to grin and spoke so everyone could hear me. “No problem. We got a few cranky bees here, but nothing compared to what’s coming.” A moment later, Clyde shouted for duct tape and the man with the gun left rubber in the driveway.

“He stung me!”

I returned to the hives and pulled the stone trick three more times. I now had a towering inferno of bees so thick I could hardly see through it, so loud I could barely hear the anguished cries coming from Tattoos as he danced around like a circus bear. “He stung me! He stung me!”

“She,” I said reflexively.

“No really! He did! He did! Look! Ouch! Look at my nose! Oh my god!”

I felt bad for beefy Clyde in a way, but I was also overjoyed. Our first session was going well. We were beginning to understand each other; they had learned their first lesson and I had learned mine. I turned toward the hives and whispered sweetly. “Way to go, girls. Damn if I don’t love ya.”

Mentoring was going to be fun.


Bees behind bars: Honey_Bee_in_Willow_Trees_bob peterson

Honey bee in willow tree by Bob Peterson.

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  • Lovely. I can really picture your story. I think you are brave and also apparently rather socially caring for taking on this work. Your bees must think so too because their affinity to you made for all this bee-cooperative-ation, it would seem.

  • Oh, Rusty! Thanks for making my day with that story. I just know, for the rest of my life, when I think of that story, it’s going to put a big ol’ smile on my face.

  • Great story, Rusty. I’m sure we’d all like to hear more on how your bee-mentoring progressed.

  • Your prison story definitely brought a smile to my face. So far, my educational efforts have been limited to 2nd graders, who like my special effects-full body bee suit and smoker.

  • Love, love, love it. Your stories so often make me throw my head back and give a good ol belly laugh! Way to go, girlfriend(s)! ;J)

  • That’s so funny Rusty! One of the funniest I’ve heard in along time. I was laughing so much I couldn’t read, had to keep wiping eye’s for tears!!

  • Brilliant, funny story with something serious behind it. I’d like to think that some of your prisoners at least were ‘tamed’ by falling in love with bees and beekeeping?

  • You are an exceptionally brave gal, and a true asset to your community. Also, very funny with your writing.

  • One of my Godsons is an inmate at a Florida prison farm. He’s learned to love everything agriculture, even though he grew up in the city. When we exchange letters I always mention what the bees are up to. Last letter he responded with info on a story he’d read in Wired magazine about varroa control. I look forward to introducing him to the girls when he gets out in a couple years. Great thing you’re doing with those young men, buddy. Thanks.

    • Thanks, Andy. But honestly, I’ve never been called “buddy” before. First time for everything, I guess.

    • Herb,

      There was supposed to be a part 2 and 3, but I never got around to it. Then the program at the prison shifted and came under the jurisdiction of the state university. So I guess I should change the title. Thanks for mentioning it.