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Beekeeping has many sweet connections to Church history

A centuries-long tradition in religious orders, bees provide wax for candles, honey, too

Published: April 18, 2022   
Maryanne Meyerriecks
St. Boniface parishioner Mike Elsken tends the three bee boxes in his yard in Fort Smith April 6. He has 11 more bee boxes on his property in Mountainburg.

Sacred Heart of Mary parishioner Mike Ferguson began beekeeping for environmental reasons but soon learned that beekeeping can also be a spiritual practice.

“You can watch bees all day, and they won’t bother you,” the Southwestern Bell retiree in Barling said. “It’s amazing to see how industrious they are. They know their purpose in life and their duty to serve. It takes a bee 18 days to grow from egg to pupa. They feed and care for the hive for a week and then go out foraging. They live productively and in peace in their community.”

Retired teacher Mike Elsken of St. Boniface Parish, who tends three hives in his Fort Smith backyard and many more in his Mountainburg (Crawford County) property, made the same discovery.

“Last year, Mike saw a swarm on a high branch up in Mountainburg,” wife Jo Elsken said. “Even though he was 75, he got a 14-foot ladder, cut down the branch and then sat on the ground with them, just watching as they gradually went into his bee box. He calls them ‘my ladies.”’

"As bees transform nectar into honey, Catholics are reminded of their responsibility to listen to the Word of God, meditate on it and transform it into the honey of good work."

“When I went to high school at Subiaco, the monks kept hives,” Mike Elsken said. “The farmland makes it a perfect place for beekeeping.”

Throughout Church history, monks have been beekeepers and have found bees to be a perfect model of God’s Church, a 2016 article in explained. Bees live in service, working in harmony for the good of the hive. Worker bees are chaste. As bees transform nectar into honey, Catholics are reminded of their responsibility to listen to the Word of God, meditate on it and transform it into the honey of good work.

According to a 2018 Catholic News Service article, the Church also views the honeybee as a model for "Our Lady," because of its good working habits. St. Augustus encouraged monks to use the worker bee as a model for their vow of chastity.

Beekeeping has been a centuries-long tradition in religious orders, providing the community with wax for chapel candles as well as honey.

St. Benedict is one of several patron saints of bees. Subiaco Abbey practiced beekeeping for many years. One of their most notable beekeepers was Brother Stephen Babek, who died in 1973.

“Called by a fellow monk the ‘mechanical genius of the century,’ Brother Stephen made 1,300 candles per year for use in monastic liturgies,” abbey subprior Brother Ephrem O’Bryan, OSB, said. 

Father. Elijah Owens, OSB, who recently returned to the abbey after several years of study in Rome, is planning to return the abbey to beekeeping soon. When there is a sufficient number of hives, Father Cassian Elkins, OSB, told Arkansas Catholic he expects the monks will bless the hives each year on the feast of the death of St Benedict, March 21, and may follow the old French tradition of attaching medals of St. Benedict to each hive.

Pope Pius XII, in a 1948 address to beekeepers, said, “Working like bees with order and peace, men would learn to enjoy and have others enjoy the fruit of their labors. … Let them (men), therefore, learn to enter with respect, trust and charity into the minds and hearts of their fellow men discreetly but deeply; then they, like the bees, will know how to discover in the humblest souls the perfume of nobility and of eminent virtue.”

Ferguson said he has also learned to value simplicity from spending time with the bees.

“Life is complicated if you let it be,” he said. “We have to look for Jesus to get over that. We think of ourselves as better than other people, and that results in evil. Evil must be replaced by the love of Jesus.”

People can help bees survive and thrive by growing flowers without pesticides or chemicals. “Bees are smarter than most of us think,” Ferguson said. “They are attracted to scents and colors. When flowers are sprayed with chemicals, bees won’t go near them.”

During April and May, people may notice bees swarming, which can happen when a hive gets too crowded, Jo Elsken said. Swarming bees are almost always harmless and focused on protecting the queen until they can find shelter in a new hive. Most beekeepers are happy to collect swarming bees if they are told about them.

Although only honeybees produce honey, every bee species carries out the important work of pollination and keeping nature in balance.

To learn more about bees, contact

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