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Program Turns Men With Criminal Past into Beekeepers

By Patrick Wall | October 22, 2012 7:14am

MELROSE — On a normal day, the young men in a program for youth tied up in the criminal justice system might fret about probation officers, drug screenings or work requirements.

But one day last week, their greatest concern was no more than a half-inch long, with black and yellow stripes.

“Are there bees in here right now?” asked Xian Padilla, 21, as he warily eyed the model beehive on the table in front of him.

The empty hive was a prop in a one-day beekeeping class that falls within a job training and service program at the Osborne Association, a nonprofit that assists people who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law.

Through the program, called Justice Community, the young men have also toured a local college, toiled in a community garden and floated in canoes down the Bronx River.

The class at the Osborne center on Westchester Avenue began with some honeybee data delivered by Dr. Todd Patton, the facility's medical director and a trained beekeeper.

Worker bees fly several miles in a single day helping to collect the nectar from 2 million flowers required for a single pound of honey, he explained.

Queen bees lay up to 2,000 eggs a day — but first they must be fertilized by drone bees, which involves a mating ritual somewhat different than humans, Patton said.

“Instead of hanging out on street corners like some people we know, they hang out about 600 feet up in the air,” he said.

A full beekeeping kit can be had for about $330, which pays for itself if the keeper harvests enough honey, Patton said.

At his home apiary in Yonkers, Patton gathers as much as 50 pounds of organic honey in a good year, which sells for $14 a pound.

Patton endures about 30 stings a season, even though the bees eventually recognize their keeper, he said — which got one student wondering.

“If I’m their beekeeper and they see me fighting, will they sting the other person?” asked Alex Candelario, 22.

It was unlikely the insect would double as a bodyguard, Patton said.

Patton ended the presentation with some encouragement — “Give bees a chance” — then led the participants up to the building's roof, where he maintains five hives in wooden frames atop plastic crates.

A few of the young men pulled on gloves and netted facemasks then swarmed around the hives. Others tightened their hoodies and hovered in the background.

Padilla, who had been suspicious of the empty hive, quickly left the roof. He later explained that bees “get attracted to people with long hair.”

“I don’t do bees,” he said.

Francisco Mateo, 20, had peppered Patton with bee questions during the presentation — why do the worker bees obey the queen? Do they ever run away? Do bees have hearts?

He was equally eager on the roof, helping to hold an insect-covered board and using his cell phone to film the workers as they buzzed in their hive and on his glove.

Later, he explained his enthusiasm.

“I’m open to new things and I like animals," Mateo said.

"And I eat honeycomb cereal.”