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What's the buzz at HMP Wandsworth?

3rd July 2017

Beekeeping may sound like a small idea, but the potential impact can be huge. The Unlocking Nature project by The Conservation Foundation, an initiative to “green” HMP Wandsworth, one of Europe’s largest prisons, is underway. With help from lead garden designer Adolfo Harrison and partners, a new atmosphere is beginning to take shape, as the new green spaces will not only transform a view from prison cells that has changed little in the prison’s 166-year history, but will also reduce symptoms of poor mental health and stress, as well as violent aggression and antisocial behaviour. As part of the project, bee hives will be added which will not only benefit the prison’s new gardens but the staff and prisoners as well.

Prison gardens throughout the UK are helping to restore pollinator habitats by offering a safe food supply, and the new garden spaces being built at HMP Wandsworth will support many types of pollinators with beds of flowers and herbs, vegetable gardens, and a small scale farm. We depend on honeybees for the majority of our food sources, but they are dying at an alarming rate, including from widespread use of pesticides. However prisons usually refrain from using chemical pesticides, so there is a minimal threat to foraging pollinators.  With the importance of pollinators gaining societal recognition and value, beekeeping has become a national priority; as a career and hobby.

Sharon Bassey, an apiarist (beekeeper to you and me), is leading the project by teaching beekeeping skills at HMP Wandsworth, a Victorian-era prison in London that holds some 1,600 men. She hopes to bring in 40,000 to 60,000 bees that a select number of prisoners will monitor once a week to check the health of the colony and harvest honey. However Sharon’s goal is not only to produce honey, but also teach the prisoners new skills to prepare them to live productive lives upon release.

Beekeeping provides an opportunity to learn skills useful beyond the hive. Successful beekeepers must keep meticulous notes to monitor the hive, be punctual and consistent in attending, learn from trial and error, and remain calm. Working with bees can offer many therapeutic benefits too. In prisons, both prisoners and staff suffer from daily stresses, and programmes that bring the natural world inside, such as gardening and beekeeping, can be a place of retreat.

Ultimately Sharron wants the prisoners to develop a range of products from the bees’ honey and wax, and bring it to market. In this prisoners will learn valuable skills such as branding and marketing they can utilise in a broad range of careers upon release. Collecting honey from hives is annual, so all we can do is wait and look forward to what comes from this exciting project.

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