Friday, September 19, 2014



This week's arts and culture column is on the fascinating subject of beekeeping. In an 800-word piece, I could barely scratch the surface, but here you go. It begins:

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 30 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!"...



  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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