PENDLETON — The Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution recently had an escape.
The fugitive isn’t an inmate, but rather a honey bee — the queen bee of a hive in EOCI’s new beekeeping program. One day she was there overseeing her colony, and the next, she took flight. She is currently on the lam and the buzz is that she won’t be back.
“She did not care for Hotel EOCI,” said Ray Peters, who leads the new beekeeping program.
Since the fledgling group of beekeepers only has two hives, this was a blow.
The program started three months ago with eight inmates. Peters, EOCI’s inmate work program coordinator, agreed to guide the novice beekeepers though he himself had little experience in tending bees. Fortunately Peters is a quick study.
“We’re all learning together as we go,” he said prior to a recent classroom session.
Peters isn’t a guy who discourages easily. He used the disappearance of the queen as another lesson in bee behavior.
The men learned about what happens to the worker bees when a queen leaves a hive. One of the students read aloud from his beekeeper’s handbook.
“When a colony loses its queen … some workers may start to lay eggs,” he read. “Since they are incapable of mating, their eggs will be infertile. Therefore the population of a hive that has laying workers will slowly decline.”
To head off inevitable doom, the men would spend the latter part of the session combining their queenless colony with their other hive, which has a queen, but is relatively weak in numbers. The men watched a video about how to accomplish the maneuver.
“I’ll be talking you through it,” Peters said. “We’re going to make some bees angry today.”
Joining two beehives is a delicate operation. You don’t just dump a queenless colony of bees into another hive like a group of unwelcome guests.
Peters and five of his beekeepers donned bee suits, got a smoker and headed out to the hives, which sat on a concrete pad surrounded by chainlink fence. The other students looked on.
Patrick Gazely-Romney and Antonio Ledesma fired up the smoker to help calm the bees during the process. They wafted smoke into the queenless hive and opened it up, removing frames filled with bees and shaking them off. The idea was to consolidate them onto fewer frames.
The beekeepers removed the covers of the intact hive and placed halves of the doomed hive on each end. In between, the men placed pages of the “New York Times” sports section.
“The bees will gradually chew through the newspaper until the colonies unite. The paper slows the process so the two colonies can become accustomed to each other, and by the time they actually unite they will behave as a single colony,” Peters said. “The pheromones of the queen will suppress the laying worker and we will have — hopefully — a good strong colony.”
One of the beekeepers, Anthony McDougald calmly watched the action from the other side of the chainlink fence. He said he doesn’t feel anxious around the bees.
“I listen to the hum of the bees. It relaxes me,” he said. “If you’re upset, they’re upset.”
When the mission was accomplished, the men walked back to the classroom. Only time would tell whether they had succeeded.
More than 100 men applied for this program. Peters said the students will work to earn their apprentice beekeeping certification. Other shops on the prison campus provide support for the beekeepers. The carpenter shop built hives, the grounds crew planted flowers and the metal shop fabricated tools.
The men seem taken with their new vocation.
“It’s a good opportunity to do something positive,” said David Saucedo. “It’s something to take with me.”
One of the beekeepers, Jonathan Montes, frets over the future of bees which serve as the world’s pollinators. He urged people to “plant bee-friendly flowers in their yards.” He said the bee training gives him motivation and he plans to continue beekeeping on the outside after his release.
“This program has helped me stay on track,” Montes said. “It keeps me in a positive mind frame and focused on getting out.”
Last week, Peters’ mentor, Hermiston beekeeper Jan Lohman, inspected the combined hive and delivered some bad news.
“Her diagnosis was that the combination was a failure — the laying workers killed the queen,” Peters said. “Our hopes for that hive now rest on a single capped queen cell; we’re hoping they raise it to maturity and she is able to successfully mate and take over the hive.”
The outlook isn’t good though, he admitted.
“Jan was pessimistic enough that she donated another colony to us in an act of tremendous generosity,” Peters said. “We placed it last Wednesday, and will be checking on it this coming week.”
He remains staunchly optimistic. His guys learned plenty after their queen bee flew off into the sunset. They gain knowledge every time they run across a new scenario.
And their luck hasn’t been all bad.
“We’ve been doing this for three months,” he said, “and have yet to have someone stung.”