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Belfast's Hydebank a hive of activity as behind-bars beekeeping creates a buzz

On day four in our series of special reports to mark Prisons Week, we look at hobby with a sweet outcome

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A student takes part in beekeeping course at Hydebank Wood College

A student takes part in beekeeping course at Hydebank Wood College

Michael Cooper

Jars of the honey for sale in the Barn shop at the college

Jars of the honey for sale in the Barn shop at the college

Michael Cooper

Chris Hodges, from the Ulster Beekeeping Association, and Rachel Armstrong, security manager at Hydebank, with one of the students

Chris Hodges, from the Ulster Beekeeping Association, and Rachel Armstrong, security manager at Hydebank, with one of the students

Michael Cooper

A student being interviewed by Belfast Telegraph journalist Claire McNeilly

A student being interviewed by Belfast Telegraph journalist Claire McNeilly

Michael Cooper

A student takes part in beekeeping course at Hydebank Wood College

There's a buzz around Hydebank Wood Prison these days, with beekeeping now a popular pastime.

A novel scheme, introduced to the Belfast jail in conjunction with the Ulster Beekeepers Association, started with a couple of hives and has proved a big hit with prisoners and staff.

Hydebank is unique because no other detention centre in the UK or Ireland houses both adult women (there were 61 female residents on Tuesday) and young offenders, 99 of them, who have been sentenced or are on remand.

Here, prisoners are 'students', staff don't wear uniforms and are called by their first names, and almost all inmates spend their day involved in purposeful activity, training or education.

Governor Gary Milling said it is all about "doing the best we can" for those housed in the facility, hence the rather surprising opportunity to work with chickens, sheep, goats, donkeys - and bees.

It is understood that the prison's most notorious inmate Hazel Stewart, serving a minimum of 18 years for killing her husband Trevor Buchanan and lover Colin Howell's wife Lesley in 1991, is one who has taken up the honey hobby.

But the Prison Service would not discuss the identity of individuals involved.

Hydebank security manager Rachel Armstrong has also signed up, along with some fellow members of staff and "a handful of students".

"We tried to target those who would be with us for the duration of the time required to complete the course," she said.

"We mixed our male and female population and took staff as well. We had no set criteria."

Beekeeping offers an opportunity to learn skills useful beyond the hive, but it is not for everyone.

Rachel said some prisoners dropped out, leaving two "core contenders on the programme".

In the end "10 staff and two students" sat the exam last year and obtained a qualification, with one young offender participant - 'William' (not his real name) - scoring 97% in his test.

"Whilst the numbers are quite low, there was a 100% pass rate for the individuals," said Rachel.

"So when you look at reducing reoffending, it's about a sense of self-esteem, it's about that practical learning alongside the educational learning, which is the ethos of Hydebank Wood College."

'William' (23), from Co Down, who is due to be released in seven months after five years inside, said tending to the bees - once a week in summer, once a month in winter - has been beneficial.

"I got offered a chance to do it, so I thought I'd give it a go because I love anything to do with nature, bugs and animals," he said.

"Some people dropped out, but I stuck at it.

"I spend half-an-hour to 40 minutes a week looking after them. I find it therapeutic.

"You don't think about anything else. You're up here and your head's free, just sitting watching them."

Apiculture is not without its perils and, despite wearing the protective clothing provided by the prison, 'William' recalled how Rachel got stung in the foot "because she wouldn't wear wellies".

"I've never been stung," he revealed. "Bees don't really sting you unless you annoy them, whereas wasps are just angry. They've got problems."

Goats and sheep are also cared for by inmates in the grounds and animal therapy, along with two chocolate brown Labradors, have had a massive impact on the mental health of some of the jail's most troubled women.

Rescued battery hens provide eggs for the prison restaurant, The Cabin, where staff and prisoners often eat together, with organic vegetables also grown in the prison's garden.

Award-winning honey is on sale in the Barn shop for £6 a pot and its production has trebled.

"In our first year we had 80 jars of honey and this year, we had 240," said professional beekeeper Chris Hodges, who runs Bally Black Bees in Newtownards and tutors at the jail.

"It's liquid gold. Last year it won the Taste Cup at the Killinchy and District Beekeeping Association.

"We also made a small amount of lip balm and we could branch out into other beauty products."

Chris gave the beekeeping course and there was an awards ceremony, where Federation of Irish Bees Association Preliminary Certificates on Beekeeping were presented.

"We brought in four colonies - around 120,000 bees - and came every week to mentor, letting the students do the work," he said.

Indeed, his charges actually took control of the colonies and were trained to open the hives, look at what is happening inside, interpret behaviours, as well as check and harvest the honey.

Lauding the "ethos of animal husbandry" at Hydebank, which feels more like a secure rehab facility than a prison, Ulster Beekeeping Association assessor Chris said he got a "great sense of satisfaction out of it".

"We had students from the women's prison, young boys and staff in the same room and everyone worked as a team," he said.

"We were teaching people with no knowledge of these flying insects and 12 weeks later they were in a bee suit and comfortably managing the hives."

It's not every day you have convicted prisoners in your class, but Chris said he "took it all in my stride". "It was just like any other group of students," he said.

"It was probably an easier group of students because they were much more disciplined."

Belfast Telegraph