(02/08/24) COTTONPORT, La. — Inside a small building on the grounds of the Raymond Laborde Correctional Center near Cottonport, a group of prison staff and trusties gathered around a table where LSU AgCenter agent Keith Hawkins had spread out an array of tools used in beekeeping.
Following along in a thick stack of printouts, the correctional officers and inmates listened intently as Hawkins ran through a slide presentation outlining the basics of setting up beehives, caring for bees and extracting honey. These are tasks they soon will be tackling as the prison launches a beekeeping program — an initiative leaders believe will benefit the crops grown on its farm as well as inmate rehabilitation efforts.
Hawkins, an agriculture and natural resources agent based in Beauregard Parish, spent Feb. 5 and 6 at the prison teaching an introductory beekeeping class. There was a lot of information to cover in two days, from the bee’s life cycle to equipment to parasites that can harm colonies.
The new beeyard will eventually produce honey for the prison, a Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections facility situated on roughly 1,200 acres in rural Avoyelles Parish. The bees will aid in pollinating the prison farm, where a variety of vegetables are grown to feed more than 1,800 inmates.
“The facility eats what it grows,” said Capt. Paul Bunn, who is overseeing the bee program. “We process it, send it into the kitchen, get it cleaned up. Anything that we produce, we bring it inside and serve.”
Bunn hopes to have four beehives set up by the end of March.
While it’s not difficult to work with bees, there is a learning curve, Hawkins said.
“It’s not hard,” he said. “But if you do beekeeping, you’re going to get stung once in a while. That’s part of it.”
Patience also is necessary.
The reward — honey — does not come immediately, with most new hives not yielding a harvest the first year. It takes time to get the hang of tools like smokers, which calm bees so hives can be inspected, and extractors, which sling honey off wooden beehive frames. Wearing protective gear such as veils and the right kind of gloves can be awkward at first, and interacting with the bees may feel intimidating.
“I’ve made mistakes,” Hawkins told the class. “The key is you keep learning from your mistakes and getting experience.”
Two inmates participating in the program, Michael Richard and Shane Perez, were surprised to learn there are more than 20,000 species of bees — just a handful of which make honey.
“I didn’t know there were so many different bees,” Richard said.
They are looking forward to getting the beeyard up and running.
“It’s going to be exciting,” Richard said.
“It’s something new to do,” Perez added.
Are the new beekeepers afraid of getting stung?
“A little,” Richard admitted with a laugh.
Bunn said the beeyard will open new opportunities for inmates.
“It gives them something to do to pass their time and look forward to so they’re not just dwelling on the negativity,” he said.
Because the inmates will one day return to society, Bunn said, it’s important for the prison to do its part to help them improve themselves.
“People might think, ‘It’s just a prison. It’s where we house bad people,’ ” he said. “No, it’s to rehabilitate people so they can operate better in the free world.”
For Hawkins, who has led gardening and beekeeping courses throughout his career, teaching a class at the prison was a unique and fulfilling experience. As an AgCenter agent, he enjoys seeing people learn about all aspects of agriculture.
A longtime beekeeper himself, Hawkins’ favorite part of having beehives is extracting the honey. He knows the prison staff and inmates will be excited when it comes time for their first harvest.
“That’s the fun part,” he said.
LSU AgCenter agent Keith Hawkins demonstrates how to wear a protective veil when working with beehives while teaching an introductory beekeeping class to staff and inmates Feb. 5 at the Raymond Laborde Correctional Center near Cottonport. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter
Shane Perez, an inmate at the Raymond Laborde Correctional Center near Cottonport, looks at a frame from a wooden beehive during an introductory beekeeping class taught by LSU AgCenter agent Keith Hawkins. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter