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Beekeeping program offers a sweeter future for offenders

It’s just after day break and an offender slips on a white jumper. It’s not his uniform but a protective covering for his upcoming task. A short walk from the dormitory and a few hundred feet from a nearby corn field you can already hear the buzzing.

Photo of a TDCJ offender beekeeper

“Never in my wildest imagination would I think I would become a beekeeper. The image I have always had was to go the opposite direction of the bees,” said Levi Terry.

The 35 year old offender has worked with bees at the Eastham Unit since 2006. There are currently 13 hives at this farm.

TDCJ’s revamped bee program began in 2006 when two captured hives were placed at the Ellis Unit. Since then, the program has continued and grown to include ninety-three active hives and eighteen new hives located at thirteen units where Agribusiness managed gardens are cultivated.

Richard Shaver, Deputy Director of Agribusiness and Minerals, says the bees are critical to growing crops used by the agency. “These gardens occupy approximately 4,000 acres and in a normal year will produce 18 to 20 million pounds of vegetables consumed fresh or sent to our cannery for processing.”

While native bees and other natural pollinators can and do provide pollination to these crops, the addition of farm raised colonies increases the concentration of pollinators resulting in enhanced pollination and increased vegetable production.

Photo of bees on a hive

Each farm with a vegetable production program maintains one or more hives depending on the size of the operation.cEach hive or colony consists of one queen bee and 10 to 15 thousand worker bees that gather pollen and nectar within a half-mile radius of their hive each day, and in the process, pollinate plants. TDCJ employees who oversee the bee program on each farm also train and educate offenders in the skill of beekeeping.

Bees and offenders may seem like an odd combination but it’s not according to Bobby Lumpkin, Director of Manufacturing, Agribusiness and Logistics.

“This program really is beneficial. Offenders are learning skills they can use when they get out of prison. The crops in the field are being pollinated. We’re helping cultivate colonies which have been shrinking nationwide. Then there’s the added benefit of honey,” said Lumpkin.

Honey is harvested each year and used by the agency’s food service program. In 2016, 547 pounds of honey was produced by TDCJ bee hives.