MEDITATIONS OF A BEEKEEPER

Earlier this year, I visited Madonna House: the lay community in Combermere, Ontario, founded by the late Russian emigré and mystic Catherine Doherty.

Life at Madonna House is deeply incarnational. Members grow their own food, cut their own wood, make their own altar cloths, candles, icons. My last day there, Andorra Howard, a community member for thirty years, took me to see the bees she tends and loves. As she worked, she told me some of what she’s learned.

“I’ve been the “official” Madonna House beekeeper for three years now. The job has been one of the most wonderful, fulfilling, and challenging of my apostolic life.

When I was first asked to look after our hive I spent a day with our local bee inspector to learn beekeeping. He never worked with gloves and sometimes without even a veil! He told me that I could use gloves but that the bees didn’t like them and that you squished more of them that way. So I decided to try working without gloves, too. Whenever I got a couple of stings the fear would rise and I would run to protect myself, but the gloves always seemed to make matters worse, not better. The bees got angrier at the intrusion and I got more frustrated with my clumsiness.

Also I began to realize there was a world literally at my finger tips that I would never enter unless I made myself as vulnerable to the bees as they were to my intrusion. 

Deeper still, I realized that God has created a harmony, a peace, an order that Nature expresses and obeys. Nature doesn`t rebel against God; Nature obeys Him. Where that order still exists—where man has not destroyed it—you literally can enter into in and feel it.

I have often thought around the bees, “This must have been what Eden was like, this harmony, this lack of rebellion in my nature and in all nature around me.”  It`s beautiful! And it has nothing to do with ME! I have to bow to something that is taking place and respect the bees, their home, the order of their life. I know that if I wear gloves they can`t “get at me.” But then I can never feel them either. One time, the bees were tracking the queen’s scent and my hand was literally covered with their soft, fuzzy bodies; vibrating with the beating of their wings! It was exhilarating! It was fascinating! I was lost in this moment! You would never get that with gloves on!

The queen bee is the most important bee in the hive. The entire temperament and future of the hive belong to her. You get to know your queens pretty well. They all have personalities! You can get attached to them, proud of them, frustrated with them, too. One time I accidentally stepped on and killed a queen. I felt so bad! This queen had produced well, she was gentle, she deserved a better way to die than to be stepped on by some clumsy junior beekeeper. I know people may think it silly or sentimental but I picked that tiny queen up and I made a little hole with my foot and I buried her there.

We beekeepers all have a “way” that we keep bees. It`s not about a technique; it`s about a stance to life, a philosophy. Do I kill a queen just because she has some quirks that are harmless but that annoy me or make me work harder? Can I put up with that? Because if everything doesn’t have to be just the way I like it with an insect, then maybe I can be the same way with a person. Can I choose to be in the company of someone who annoys me? Can I stop wanting everyone to change to suit my needs? Can I have the same respect and delight for the people around me that God has for each one of us?

Think about a God who took time to create something that most of the billions of people on this Earth will never see! Think about Him looking down, seeing this tiny creature burrowing into a flower, enjoying the sun and the breeze and the nectar…and God smiling. Who am I to do otherwise?

Don`t get me wrong—these aren`t pets! They will sting me if they feel threatened! But when you passionately love something it`s worth it! I have the privilege to work with one of the most fascinating creatures God has ever created.”

I stood at a respectful distance, clad in a protective bee-keepers suit. The frames swarmed with bees. Andorra’s hands as she lifted them were gentle yet sure, careful but without fear, capable yet reverent. Where had I seen hands like that before? Then I realized they were like the hands above an altar. They reminded me of the hands of a priest as he changes the bread and the wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.

5 Replies to “MEDITATIONS OF A BEEKEEPER”

  1. Hi Heather, as a beekeeper I love this piece. I wear the bee suit -I am not as in tune with the bees as I would like, but maybe one day. And being mostly of Irish descent I like the Irish patron saint of bees: St. Gobnait was born in Ireland in the 5th or 6thC. Gobnait is Irish for Abigail meaning brings joy. As the patron saint of beekeepers, her name has been anglicized as Deborah, meaning honeybee. Bees have long been important in Ireland and were part of the ancient laws called the Bech Bretha or Bee Judgements. In prehistoric times the soul was thought to leave the body as an insect, either a bee or a butterfly. Many accounts exist of how St Gobnait prevented invaders (said to have been O'Donoghues of the Glens) from carrying off cattle. On their approach she let loose the bees from her hives and they attacked the invaders, forcing them to flee. One version of the tale has the beehive turning into a bronze helmet and the bees themselves turning into soldiers. There is a statue of her near the site of the community she founded at Ballyvourney, showing her in nun’s habit standing on a step surrounded by bees.

  2. I have also kept bees for about 3.5 years now. They are so wonderful to work with and I'd say you have to do it to know. But you somehow captured the essence of if Heather. I had a "duende" moment once while taking care of them, checking for mites and bacteria and such and their buzzing all around me, without harming, going about their business, conscious of my work but going about theirs…I realized I should have been terrified when that buzzing came to the forefront of my attention. But then it lulled me into a deep peace and I paused for maybe 15-30 seconds with my eyes closed as I listened to the hum. I had to snap myself out of it to get back to work. But of a sudden I was working with them instead of near them.
    Katie, I know what you mean. I don't wear a suit but a thick white shirt, jeans and both a hat net (what are they called?) and gloves. I have to go very, very slowly because of the gloves. Last summer I was nailing a nail on the back of the hive to hang the hive tool. Some scouts came out to check me out and knew I was harmless, but unbeknownst to me, my two youngest daughters had followed me into the hive enclosure and were standing less that 2 feet in front of their entrance. I looked at them scared and surprised and that scared them and the younger began to move her hand worriedly. That started it: one stung her and they then went after all three of us. I had to lift them over a fence one by one as we were getting stung. After we got about 100 feet away, my wife who heard the commotion hosed us down as I took care of the remaining bees that were agitated and in my daughters' hair and shirts. Interestingly, I was only stung 4 times, my daughters 7 and 5 times. I think I got fewer because they knew me better. But all of that, hundreds of bees swarming all around us to protect their hive, and only 16 stings! They truly are wonderful creatures (Carolinian bees this hive) who only do peacefully what is necessary. I was 100% guilty of all their deaths and my poor daughters' wounds. They're over it now and can again approach the hives, cautiously! As for me, I wanted to be gloveless and all that stuff by now, but, i'll need some time.
    Didn't know about St. Gobnait, awesome story! I pray to St. Ambrose, another patron of beekeepers who legend has it that when he was a newborn, a swarm landed on his face and body and when they left, a drop of honey was on his lip. His parents took it as a sign that he was meant for something special and his father made sure he got the best education they could afford. St Ambrose went on to be the Christian teacher and mentor of of St Augustine! Gotta love the bees and all that goes with them!

  3. Oh wow, these are just incredible stories of bee myths, bee saints, bee transformations, Bee Judgments. I really love that last. Obviously my chat with Andorra could only scratch the surface of the amazing world of bees. I heard another bee story about a couple who had kept bees for years. The husband finally died, at home. Soon after the wife heard a terrific droning and looked out to see that the bees were swarming the windows, as if in homage, to lay their friend to rest…

    Thank you Katie and Paul. I'm sure if I kept bees I'd be covered in a suit of armor.

  4. Thanks Paul and Heather for your bee stories. My friend Don, a beekeeper, helped me setup my first hive. He is one who can move gently among the bees. He does wear gloves and a veil, but not always. He rarely gets stung.

  5. My friend's eight year old son, upon learning of the ever decreasing existence of bees, burst into tears and has since been determined to advocate on behalf of the bees, by caring for his own little yard and environment in such a way as to care for the beloved bees. His sister and I, in effort to show support of his affection of bees, dressed ourselves as bees, made bouquets of bumble bees, and decorated the house in bee art, and when he returned home to these bee festivities we decided to make an official "Bee Day" holiday. Such great fun!

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