Can honey bees transform the system?

Updated: Aug 13, 2021

I feel a long standing connection with the prison system and people inside who we call ‘prisoners’ or in my words ‘human beings who for one reason or other have become deeply traumatised’. I have a knowing that could have been me inside, if my life circumstances had led me that way. If my upbringing had been that cruel that my definition of right or wrong had become confused or I had gone to such a place that harming others had been internally normalised.

Having taught yoga in a London prison, I often questioned the approach we take with the most traumatised humans on this planet. This is in relation to the people we have put inside prisons, not the highly traumatised people outside in positions of leadership around the world. That is another story.

Question I ask - are things improving inside the prison walls and how can we, together, make them a place of transformation to heal? To take the potential of change out to the community, not just within the walls of confinement.

From work with bees and ‘prisoners’, I posed a few questions to Gareth Johns. He has worked with bees for over 40 years, and was part of a team who bought bees into Rye Hill prison. I was curious to his perception to bees, mental health and the opportunity in the prison system.

Over the years what has been your experience of working with bees and improved mental health?

Working with bees creates a sense of calm and awareness, a deep sense of being in the moment. Initially this is directed towards the bees but, over time, extends more broadly, and encompasses one's mental state even when away from the bees.

Did you see a vision when the opportunity arose to bring bees into a prison?

Initially I was doubtful as to how putting bees in a prison would work out. The bees and the prisoners’ reaction to them showed me I was wrong to have such doubts.

How were the bees when they were going into the prison?

Surprisingly calm both on arrival and afterwards. One could not help but get the impression that they knew what was expected of them.

What impact did you see in the prisoners of working with the bees?

A general sense of fascination which grew over time, in many cases, to become a deep connection with the bees. One or two prisoners became expert bee handlers. Others became skilled skep weavers. Overall there was a well deserved, sense of pride amongst the prisoners involved in the project. The emphasis was on understanding and caring for the bees rather than on the production of honey. This encouraged prisoners to exhibit a sense of openness and empathy that might otherwise be suppressed given their personal histories. The bees do not present a threat in the way another person might but, against that, they cannot be taken for granted as they posses a sting. A sense of mutual respect developed between prisoners and the bees. Over time one saw this translate into increased self respect and respect for others.

What is the opportunity for the prison system of expanding the work with bees?

I am aware of two prisons now working with bees, one a high security prison and the other an open prison. It is not just about bees. The learning of skills such as weaving skeps and making wooden hives is an important part of the program in both prisons. Doubtless other prisons could do this too.

What are the first steps that the management team need to know for bringing bees into a prison?

The initial step is to meet with the persons who would be introducing the hives and bees to the prison to develop an appropriate strategy in the context of that prison and its prisoners.

How could the work inside the prison be a ripple effect outside for the whole community ?

Hives made by one of the prisons are in use by local community members, who also engage with teaching prisoners about bees and their role in the wider ecosystem.

What do the bees want to tell humans about the existing structure of prison systems?

We look at prisoners as if they are somehow apart from us, somehow other. When we ‘other’ something, we lose connection with it. To change this we must first change the way we see ourselves, such that we lose the sense of other. The prison environment is part of the society in which we live just as much as the local pub is part that society, even if we never actually go there. Bees do not engage in othering. To them, everything is one whole, one being. They are just a part. When we learn that we change the way we see the world.

Thank you Gareth for sharing.

On reflection on Gareth's insights, I believe 5 miles around the prison could be part of community involvement & responsibility. Creating an improved foraging area for the bees through tree and forage planting and ban of pesticide usage. This could also help support a shift away from the ‘them and us’ despite the prison walls. A joint focus to bring back biodiversity, protect the bees and heal the myth of separation. The prisoners leading the way inside through natural beekeeping and hive making and the outside community planting.

Let us open this work to more prisons and other people working with exclusion groups such as the homeless. The bees can help us dispel the myth of separation and bring seemingly unconnected communities back together with a joint purpose.

Links to bee work in prisons:

Rye Hill Prison

HMP Altcourse in Liverpool

Washington State Prisons

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