Busy bees make much more than honey. They also make honeydew melons, squash, apples, pears, and a swarm of other fruits and vegetables. They do it through pollination.
“This is a pilot project,” said Ellis Farm Manager Mike Neeley. “We’ll start with ten and build from that.”
Bees were brought back to TDCJ with the help of Jesse Oates, a beekeeper who works as a program specialist responsible for all aspects of offender disciplinary within Region I for the Correctional Institutions Division. He has raised bees off and on since he was 14 and now keeps a number of hives at his farm near Onalaska, where they help pollinate his large garden and fruit trees.
“Most of my neighbors with fruit trees love my bees because they have been getting their best crops in years,” Oates said. “All I can do is attribute that to the bees because we sure haven’t had the extra moisture.”
Oates said loss of habitat has contributed to a decline in native bee populations in East Texas, and that keeping farm-raised colonies is a good way to ensure that gardens are properly pollinated. TDCJ Entomologist Steve Ball said that with sufficient moisture, using bees normally results in a 20 percent increase in pollination. That could add to the 15 million pounds of produce harvested from ALM-managed gardens covering 4,000 acres around the state last year.
“We’re looking for that 20 percent increase in pollination so we can increase our garden crop in the range of 10 to 15 percent,” said ALM Edible Crops Assistant Manager Roger Shed. “It’s all about keeping the offender population fed as much as possible from within.”
“The more we produce, the less money the Food Service Department has to spend to purchase items to feed the population,” said Greg Adams, Edible and Field Crops manager for ALM.
An average farm-raised bee colony consists of one queen and anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 loyal subjects. Most are worker bees, all of which are sterile females. They are the bees that gather pollen and nectar within a half-mile radius of their hive each day, and in the process, pollinate plants.
Much of the buzz over bees, of course, has to do with their honey. An average colony can produce several gallons of the sweet stuff each year. And while the honey TDCJ hives produce will go to unit kitchens, honey production is secondary to the bees’ main mission.
“We’re after pollination, not honey,” Oates said. “The honey will be just a by-product. We need pollination first and foremost because that’s what puts food on the table.”
By getting back into the bee business, Oates said TDCJ is simply getting back to nature.
“Approximately 70 percent of everything involving agriculture depends on some form of pollination and the honey bee is the most efficient pollinator that we know of on earth,” Oates said. “Even modern science cannot duplicate the pollination of crops by bees. We humans are no where near as efficient as the bees.”
“The whole world depends on bees,” Shed added. “It’s nature at its best.”