State prisoners earn beekeeping certificates from UGA Honey Bee Lab

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Smith State Prison in Glennville is home to rapists, murderers, kidnappers, armed robbers — and some of Georgia’s newest certified beekeepers.

In May, 11 inmates took the Georgia Master Beekeeper certification test after participating in a class that may soon be available at other prisons across the state.

The certification test included both written and practical portions and is administered by the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Honey Bee Lab, which was first contacted about the Smith State program in fall 2014.

“We were reading the exam the night before, and I was worried,” said Jennifer Berry, the Honey Bee Lab manager for UGA. “All the inmates were very excited and very nervous. I could tell they were well-prepared and had studied hard.”

Only 70 percent of participants in UGA’s annual Beekeeping Institute at Young Harris College generally pass the test, but all 11 inmates from Smith State Prison passed with a B or better, Berry said.

“This certificate shows the prison and warden that they are working towards something and are trying to better their lives and themselves,” Berry said.

After becoming certified, there are three more levels of beekeeping proficiency: journeyman beekeeper, master beekeeper and master craftsman beekeeper.

The journeyman and master levels of certification allow a beekeeper to work commercially with bees, and the master craftsman level is comparable to earning a degree in graduate program.

But the prisoners will never be able to advance to journeyman status behind bars, as doing so requires public service or educational efforts to promote honey bees — the official state insect of Georgia since 1975.

Despite this, Lenwood Roberts, the horticulture instructor at Smith State Prison, said the program gives them marketable job and life skills.

“The structure of how bees operate has a close relationship to life as a human being,” Roberts said. “The bees are all close together and have duties to perform. If anyone from the group fails to perform their responsibilities, then the colony dies. And so it is with real life.”

The formal beekeeping course at Smith State Prison developed when Bear Kelley, the past president of the Georgia Beekeepers Association, heard about an inmate who was a beekeeper prior to incarceration and had built hives out of scraps at the prison.

“I went to the prison and was curious to see if there was good beekeeping going on,” said Kelley, a retired army veteran and a 10-year veteran beekeeper.

Kelley asked the prisoner what he could do to help, and he said “his eyes lit up.”

Berry got a bee supplier to donate a pallet full of hives and Kelley enlisted the help of the local beekeeping club in Statesboro, which took the prison class on as a sponsored project.

There are clubs in Dooly and Reidsville that are willing to partner with prisons in their area, and Kelley said they also have the support of the state.

The prisons in Georgia that operate farms have to rent bees “to the tune of $2,000 to $3,000 a year,” Kelley said.

By educating prisoners as beekeepers, taxpayers would not have to spend that extra money.

And, once certified, the prisoners can start to teach others, he said.

At Smith State Prison, training for the second class of 13 future beekeepers is underway, and three of the prisoners certified in May are still working in the apiary.

“Beekeeping is one of those activities that once you get into it and study the little bee and see all that she does and how she does it. It is phenomenally interesting,” Kelley said.

But learning in the confines of a prison compound comes with roadblocks a backyard beekeeper never faces.

“Scheduling is a challenge because oftentimes you can’t do things the way you want to,” Roberts said. “Security always comes first no matter what else is going on, which is a good thing. We are here to provide an institution that is safe for the workers and the offenders.”

One of the main tools of the beekeeping trade is a hive tool, which resembles a flattened crow bar and is used to loosen and remove hive bodies and frames.

For the prisoners to use this tool, they have to be under constant surveillance, Berry said.

“The prisoners were very respectful and very good while I was there,” Kelley said. “I didn’t feel threatened in any way, but they knew that one little mishap, and Bear is gone.”

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