Prison honey bee program a sweet success

Brian Martin, an inmate at Collins Bay Institution for 32 years, had a scary confrontation two weeks ago.

It didn't involve another inmate or staff at the federal penitentiary in Kingston, Ont. It involved hundreds of angry bees.  

Martin was inspecting the beehive frames, each throbbing with honey bees.

"I dropped one of the frames and it sent them into a tizzy," he recalled with a shiver.

It's an eye-opener to who you are as a person. - Brian Martin, inmate

As Martin was being stung about 40 times through his denim jeans, the beekeeping instructor cautioned him to stay calm.

"She said, 'Just think, just think, stay focused.'"

The incident didn't diminish Martin's enthusiasm for the new rehabilitation program at the prison, which he credits with teaching him far more than than just how to produce honey.

"It's an eye-opener to who you are as a person," said Martin, who's serving a life sentence for second-degree murder.

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Inmates enthusiastic

Samantha Davidson, the instructor who kept Martin calm that day, introduced two hives of her own bees to Collins Bay Institution in the summer of 2018 after receiving a grant through Carleton University to research the potential benefits of beekeeping for prisoners.

The inmates took to it right away, she said.

"I was really surprised last year about how enthused the inmates really were," Davidson said.

"I brought my collection of beekeeping books with me and I left them here for the summer, and they read them cover to cover, and every week I came back they had more questions."

Carleton University

Her project has now turned into a formal program, and was expanded to Joyceville Institution this summer. Between the two institutions, 16 inmates now tend to 20 hives.

While the inmates are fascinated with the bees and the technical skills involved in taking care of them, Davidson said they also reported a positive impact on their own mental health.

"I think that a lot of the inmates felt like once you could get past that initial fear of sticking your hand into a box of 70,000 bees, there is actually something quite meditative about it," Davidson said.

"The smell, the sound, the vibration, and then also just having to be so present in the moment, you really have to be working slowly and carefully."

Davidson, who had never worked with inmates before, has now completed her master's degree in social work and plans to publish the results of her research later this year.

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"One of the things that the participants reported was that they felt so present, that they really left where they are and left the reality of prison behind for that time," she said. 

Martin agreed the program has had a big impact on how he deals with conflict.

"The anger management and the patience, those are the two big ones right there," he said. "The more aggressive the individual, the better the opportunity for them here because you're not going to intimidate a bee and you're forced to learn."

A 'win-win'

Chris Stein, operations manager for CORCAN, Correctional Services Canada's rehabilitation program, calls the beekeeping experiment a "win-win" because of its rehabilitative and vocational benefits for inmates. 

"I think that there is a whole field of research that we need to tap into and find out more about the positive effects that working with bees may offer these individuals," Stein said.

Further research is currently underway in the United States, where beekeeping programs have been flourishing at prisons. 

In Washington state, the program quickly blossomed from a handful of hives to dozens at 11 institutions.

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Joslyn Rose Trivett, outreach manager with the Sustainability in Prisons Project, which helps run co-operative conservation programs with The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., said "serious and violent infractions" dropped to zero among the inmates participating in the state's bee program.

"Absolutely, it makes things safer," said Trivett, who added recidivism among those inmates has also dropped.

"We can't claim that the programming is what caused that, but we have seen a pattern," she said.

CORCAN is still trying to assess the best way to distribute the honey produced by the bees at Collins Bay and Joyceville.

Some will likely feed inmates at those institutions, while the rest could be given as gifts or even sold.