It’s been 60 years since Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch (YBGR) opened its doors to troubled kids and over 40 since it changed from the Ranch to a treatment facility. But farm work has always been a cornerstone of life at the Ranch.
In the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s “there were limitless chores to do, including everything from gardening, to caring for the animals, to helping out in the kitchen, to lending a hand on the various construction projects that always seemed underway” wrote YBGR founder Franklin Robbie in his book, “A Legacy of Caring.” But lately, in addition to working with cattle, horses, and testing their green thumbs, the Ranch’s kids are farming honeybees.
Yellowstone Academy’s (YA) bee program, new this spring, is run by vocational education teacher Jim Klempel. Klempel said he has been hoping to start a bee program for over 10 years and is happy to see it happen. With eight hives to fill, Klempel set off in late April to pick up his first batch of bees from Fort Shaw’s Treasure State Honey, a family-owned beekeeping business. Klempel has filled two beehives with this batch and, in mid-May, will travel a short trip from Billings to Sunshine Apiary in Columbus, Mont. to pick up the rest, which will fill four more hives.
Klempel explained that the kids in his program have been preparing for their new flying friends by helping to assemble the bee boxes, painting them and situating them in a small, Ranch-owned field.
Klempel joked that he has learned most of what he knows from YouTube, but he has been researching their care and behaviors, and educating YBGR kids about honeybees since last winter. By the end of this summer, the kids will understand the fundamentals of beekeeping, such as how to prepare their hives, feed them, and understand the social system of bees.
Once Klempel’s second bee batch arrives, he said they will have nearly 4000 bees, a number that will grow to more than 15,000 at summer’s end.
But it won’t be until next year that the Ranch’s kids get to taste the sweet fruit of their labors. Klempel said that although the bees will begin producing honey this summer, that honey will stay in the hive for the bees to eat during winter. Next summer, kids will learn to extract the honey from the hives’ combs and will sell it to the public.
The beekeeping program teaches kids a useful trade that can help them further their employment opportunities after they graduate or once they leave the Ranch. The kids learn how to nurture and care for another living organism—the hive. Caring for the hive also allows the kids to understand the relationship that the nucs, worker bees, and the queen bee have to maintain.
“The bees provide an avenue for YBGR staff to engage youth in discussions about relationships and interactions, which promotes self-awareness and reinforces other therapeutic interventions that youth receive at YBGR,” said Mike Chavers, YBGR’s CEO.
Klempel said that the class has to keep a close watch on the hives when they introduce the two groups to see whether they are interacting positively. They will also watch the queen bees when they are integrated into the hives, because if the worker bees reject the queen, they’ll harm her.
He said the kids will help split two of the hives to make two more, filling all eight hives. The kids will monitor the behavior of the bees during the transition.
Klempel and the kids’ favorite thing to do is watch the bees. He and his class will put on bee suits or coveralls and trek across Hesper Road, down the winding grass path, and up to the field to observe the bees buzzing around.
Still in the process of setting up, Klempel said that, at one point, 30 bees we’re trying to squish through a hole the size of a thumb, so he’s cut one larger. He said the bees are not bothered by their visits, but if kids start waving their hands around or interrupting them, they might get stung.
“It’s a quick lesson in respecting Mother Nature,” Klempel said. “No one likes the pinch of a bee sting.”
The bee operation is one of many vocational education specialties at the Ranch that teach youth technical and trade skills. Others include welding, woodworking, arts and crafts, pottery, gardening, and small machining.
To learn more about how integrating vocational programs into behavioral treatment and juvenile justice programs impacts the outcomes of youth, visit the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention or see a report at https://www.ojjdp.gov/mpg/litreviews/Vocational_Job_Training.pdf.
Yellowstone Academy has a K-12 program accredited through AdvancED and a K-8 elementary district accredited through Montana’s Office of Public Instruction. YA is located on Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch’s residential campus, a nonprofit organization trusted nationally as a leader in the field of mental health care for children and their families.