In the predawn hours of a chilly Tuesday morning, master beekeeper Julia Mahood drives north up I-985 toward Alto. She’s headed to teach a class at Lee Arrendale State Prison, a high-security facility that houses more than 1,500 women—including 55 serving life sentences.
At check-in, Mahood surrenders her cell phone and driver’s license. As she’s escorted to the prison’s vocational school, each of the imposing steel doors she walks through gets manually bolted shut behind her. Navigating a series of narrow hallways where guards stand watch, she finally reaches a heavy metal door with a sign taped to the doorway that reads: “Beekeeping is the New Black.”
Mahood’s is the first female class in a statewide inmate beekeeping program that began in 2012, when an inmate and former beekeeper at Smith State Prison requested to teach a beekeeping class for his fellow inmates.
Though this would mean prisoners convicted of violent crimes would have access to live insects, smokers, lighters, and sharp, metal hive tools, the Georgia Department of Corrections approved his request. The DOC then helped solicit donated supplies from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm. With more support from the Georgia Beekeepers Association and the University of Georgia Master Beekeeping Program, the operation blossomed into a multifacility program.
Mahood, a master beekeeper who works as a graphic artist and lives near Chastain Park, heard about the program at a GBA meeting and volunteered to help if it ever expanded to a women’s facility. She taught her first class at Arrendale in March 2016. Now entering its third year, the facility’s beekeeping program is 25 women strong—five from the original class, 10 from last year, and 10 new students, who are being taught by class veterans (the goal, Mahood says, is to make the class as self-sustaining as possible).
Five women in Mahood’s current class have passed their initial certified beekeeper exams and are now working toward taking their journeyman certification test, the next step toward becoming a master beekeeper. They’ll be the first group in Georgia prisons, male or female, to do so.
As part of Mahood’s class, the Arrendale beekeepers have learned everything from the scientific nomenclature of honeybees to the various pests that can threaten the hives—all without access to the internet. They’ve formed a honeybee club, which publishes a monthly newsletter called the Nectar Collector on a 20-year-old monstrosity of a desktop computer. And in 2016, the honey they collected from their hives placed second in a special category of the Georgia Beekeepers Association honey contest.
Should any of these students become eligible for release, they could potentially use their experience and skills to find work and community on the outside, a challenge for many released inmates.
Tending the bees also provides the women with an opportunity to go outside, collaborate with each other, and learn something new. It’s an antidote, Mahood says, to the monotony of day-to-day life behind bars.
“They all love the beekeeping,” she says. “And most of the time, I feel like I’m just with some people teaching a beekeeping class—once you get blind to the razor wire and stuff.” Teaching the inmates and seeing their progress has also been a transformative experience for Mahood. “When they’re in my class,” she says, “they aren’t criminals. They’re beekeepers.”
When Mahood arrives at the classroom, the students zip netted beekeeper’s hoods and jackets over their beige jumpsuits and head out into the fog-soaked early morning. Surrounded by building-high razor wire fences with barbs the size of a palm, they trek through a field to the wooden hive boxes, which they’ve painted bright pinks, yellows, and blues. Tucked inside are pallets of golden combs, glowing and covered in honeybees. There’s a small circular garden of wildflowers planted nearby.
As the class works together to light the smoker and cluster the humming, buzzing bees, their knowledge and dedication become apparent. “Bees insulate their hives with propolis,” says one inmate, pointing to the comb’s waxy walls. “It’s also a powerful antiviral.” “They’re clustering in the center of the hives to keep warm,” says another.
The women are as comfortable with the insects as most people are with kittens and puppies and just as nurturing. They sense what mood the bees are in—whether they’re angry, scared, or happy. A third inmate, a member of that first class, notes that bees work together as a community, in perfect harmony, for the good of the queen and the colony. They don’t have ego, she says. Every bee has a job, every bee matters.
The metaphor isn’t lost on Mahood.
This article appears in our July 2018 issue.