BELMONT COUNTY, Ohio (WTRF)

It all started when a swarm of bees flew into the Belmont County Correctional Institution in 2017.

“We had a staff member here, Willie May, who is a member of the Tri State Beekeepers Association,” recalled David Gray, warden. “And he said he could take care of it, so he went out and helped gather up the bees.”

And that got them thinking.

The following year, they started a beekeeping program.

“We went from a swarm of bees flying in here to now having nine hives and over 300,000 bees,” said Warden Gray.

It involves carpentry, math, biology, even food handling.

The prisoners became good at beekeeping.

“They are dedicated,” noted Steve Roth, instructor and master beekeeper. “They have textbooks they study, they have access to things through their library. They study constantly. They have the books memorized, sentence by sentence.”

The bee program impacted not only the inmates but staff and the entire community.

“I hate to say it, but it caused a buzz around here!” said Will May, teacher and advisor, BeCI Beekeepers Club. “People know where the bees are. They know who to contact if they see anything. And they just seem to be excited that they are here.”

For many prisoners, it’s their job.

And at the same time, the bees are doing their job.

“They’re not just pollinating the flowers around our facility,” said the warden. “They’re pollinating plants all over this community within a three-mile radius. So we know these bees are going out and being helpful to the local farmers as well.”

These hives in just one day yielded several hundred pounds of honey.

They donate 51% of the honey to area food banks, and the rest goes to visitors and to the beekeeping club members.

It’s a skill that the inmates can take with them when they are released.

Their teacher, while attending a beekeeping conference recently, had a surprise.

“I looked beside me and it was one of the guys from my class here,” said Steve Roth. “He’d been released, he was now home with his family and they were developing their own hives. He was out buying equipment for his hives.”

They say it’s a pretty sweet business.