bees at night

Under a razor-wire fence, a queen bee scurries about a honeycomb, surrounded by thousands of buzzing workers and drones.

A high-security prisoner kitted out in a protective suit checks the hive to make sure the bees are healthy, using a smoker to keep them docile.

The 19-year-old, serving two-and-a-half years for burglary, hopes to use the skills he's learning here to get into beekeeping.

We're at Hawke's Bay Regional Prison's youth unit, where Corrections is paying to put five prisoners through a certificate in apiculture correspondence course run by Telford Campus, a division of Lincoln University.

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Another prisoner at the Auckland South Corrections Facility is studying beekeeping and Telford says five inmates around the country have already completed the course.

"They said they were running a beekeeping course for the boys, I just sort of hopped on it," the prisoner says. "It's pretty hard not being around family. It takes my mind off all the trouble.

He's right. Manuka honey prices in particular have skyrocketed over recent years as consumers lap it up for its anti-bacterial properties. Depending on its activity rating, manuka honey fetches anywhere from $22 to $90 a kilo.

A small operator running 30 or 40 hives in a block of manuka could expect to make at least $30,000 a season, or twice that if it's a high-yield area.

A few years ago a 200-litre drum of manuka honey sold for $2400 - today it could fetch $10,600. These rivers of gold have attracted hordes of people to the beekeeping business. There are now 6000 beekeepers operating around 600,000 hives, with more registering every week. But the industry has gained a bad name overseas because of exports of "fake" manuka, and some beekeepers have shady backgrounds. Carl Butcher of Snells Beach, for example, who was convicted of stealing more than 20 hives in 2011, did his apiculture course while on remand in Northland Region Corrections Facility on firearms and assault charges. Another Northland beekeeper, Justin Howes, who also uses the alias Matthew Adams, is currently before the courts on charges of stealing hives. Where does all this stolen honey end up?

"Once it passes through the door of an extraction plant, it can be blended with legitimate product, and is impossible to trace" says Kevin Wallace, former president of the Whangarei Bee Club, who has helped track down stolen hives.

Wallace says a dodgy beekeeper might buy 20 hives and receive another 70 stolen ones, putting the honey through an extraction plant with all the right paperwork.

From there, the honey could be sold at the farm gate, at markets, direct to restaurants or to cash buyers overseas, Wallace says.

He claims that even motorcycle gangs in Northland have jumped on the bandwagon - emptying hives of their frames and selling the honey at a 50 per cent discount for cash to unscrupulous processors.

Police would not comment as there are cases before the court, but say they have launched a range of initiatives to clamp down on hive theft and have made some significant arrests.

Wallace says the industry is riddled with dishonest players. During his time as president of the bee club, he says, he kicked out about a dozen members for dishonesty.

"They were falsifying documents for [honey] extraction. These were good club members, yet they would bring all their mates' honey in and get it extracted under their registration number."

Against this background, beekeepers are sceptical about the idea of training prisoners to become beekeepers.

"I don't know if we need a lot of ex-convicts in the industry," says Bay of Plenty honey producer Neil Mossop. "We've got a few questionable people ... already, to say the least.

"It's like training them up on security surveillance cameras or the jewellery industry - I don't know why they picked the beekeeping industry." 'BAD BOYS' HONEY'

There are three hives at the Hawke's Bay prison youth unit, with a fourth soon to be added. The honey is used in the prison kitchen and the rest given to needy families and food banks. Most days the unit is relatively quiet, but it has also been the scene of extreme violence. During a riot in 2011, two guards were viciously attacked, one having scalding water thrown in his face and his arm shattered. Numerous fires were lit and the unit was closed for 11 months while it was repaired. Brent McGrannachan, the unit's youth education tutor, says spending time with prisoners while tending to beehives is a great way to bond. "I call it grandfathering," he says. "It's a medium to talk to them about life ... starting a business and how to be a good citizen. "The best thing about a bee colony is they're all dependent on each other, so you start talking about that and bringing it back to what [people] are like." The driving force behind the project is guard Carl McQuinlan, who has been a hobbyist beekeeper for 25 years. "I just thought it would be a good idea to share some of that knowledge with these guys and turn their lives around and see that it is a viable industry to be in ... that on their release, there is employment there." Eventually he hopes to produce enough honey to sell some commercially to cover costs, and perhaps even create a label. "Bad Boys' Honey was one name they came up with, but we want to market it a bit better than that." Is he concerned some of his graduates might be tempted to steal hives as a quicker way to get started? "Hopefully not. If they can see there's a future in it, hopefully they will change their ways. You try and instil those values of work, if you instil those work ethics in them, they shouldn't need to go and steal things." Others are not convinced. Even Butcher, who was convicted of stealing hives from sites around Northland but maintains his innocence, questions why inmates are being schooled for an industry with so much money at stake and so many "dirty tricks". "I would have thought prisons would have more sense than to teach inmates ... the ins and outs." Butcher says that although he did his apiculture course behind bars, he did it off his own bat and had no help from Corrections. He claims competition for spots in manuka blocks in Northland is so intense that some of the "big players" have dusted each other's hives with wasp killer to destroy their colonies. Butcher says he's trying to find investors to build a honey extraction plant. "I've been working hard to rebuild my life."

Mossop says hive theft has become an organised criminal enterprise. "They're taking off the brands, repainting them and selling them on Trade Me," he says.

"When you consider there's hundreds of millions of dollars worth of beehives scattered throughout paddocks and bush around New Zealand - it's like large-scale stock rustling."

But he says the industry is catching up with criminals. "They're getting away with it at the moment ... but there are some big breakthroughs in technology such as putting GPS devices in hives which activate on movement - when they are moved it will ring an app on your cellphone." He says surveillance cameras and rewards for information are also effective, and police are taking the problem more seriously. Wallace says that given hives cost several hundred dollars each, beekeepers can't afford to have them stolen. "If someone comes and takes 30 or 40 hives before they've started producing, it hits you hard in the pocket, no matter how big you are." Not only are prisoners being trained as beekeepers, Wallace says, but beneficiaries have received grants from Work and Income to get started in the industry. Work and Income confirmed that. "It's a bit hard not to be cynical," Wallace says. But George Massingham, director of Hawke's Bay prison, makes no apologies for giving prisoners new skills to turn their lives around, and even talks of making the youth unit a "kindergarten" for the bee industry. "On the outside, these guys have equal rights to everybody else to live in New Zealand without being tarred. They've done their crime, they're doing the time, my job is to get them out and make them good citizens." ACCUSED THIEF SPEAKS

Justin Howes says the beekeeping industry has dishonest people in it, but he's not one of them.

"What industry doesn't have dishonest people when you're dealing with millions of dollars?"

A beekeeper since 2010 and former director of the now-defunct company Bee Wise Honey, Howes, 25, is facing charges in the Whangarei District Court of stealing hives.

He gave his first-ever interview because he says he's tired of being falsely accused by rivals, who, he claims, want to hound him out of business. He claims some of his hives have been poisoned.

"I've had enough. It's getting depressing. It's taking everything I work for away from me."

He took Stuff to a yard on a rural property near Whangarei where he has several dozen hives, and explained how anyone who visited could accuse him of theft because some of the registration numbers don't belong to him.

But he says there's a simple explanation for that. It's common practice in the industry to "split" a hive to make a new one - taking half the frames out of one box and putting them into another to boost bee numbers.

"They get mixed up all over the place," Howes says. The bottom line is, he says, the hives and frames were either bought legitimately or given to him as payment for work.

He took us to a remote block of bush near the coast where a large commercial operator keeps hives, and to prove his point, showed several different registration numbers on the hives.

"It's got to stop, we need a better way of identifying hives."

But John Hartnell, chairman of the Federated Farmers bee industry group, says the rules are clear and simple.

"It's the beekeeper's legal obligation to have his, and only his, registration number on his hives. If he buys gear from another beekeeper, he must remove the previous registration and replace, no excuses accepted."

Howes confirms he has used an alias, Matthew Adams, for some of his beekeeping activities. It's because rivals have dragged his name through the mud, he says, making it difficult for him to deal with landowners.

He says there's a good living to be made from beekeeping. "I'm not going to stop for anybody."

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