Monk takes the sting out of beekeeping discovers Chai Brady and Colm Fitzpatrick
With swarms of bees zooming in all directions, seemingly in a state of agitation, the volume of the relentless buzzing oscillates whenever one of the furry insects passes close to an ear – which can be rather shocking.
Glenstal Monastery is surrounded by scenic Limerick countryside with a lake, swans and fields, and with many parts left to grow wild it’s a perfect place for pollinators.
After over 40 years of keeping honey bees, sifting through beehives bare-handed is just more practical for one of the monastery’s monks. After all, the first stings of the season are the worst, but they become more manageable according to Fr Simon Sleeman OSB the former headmaster and bursar at Glenstal Abbey.
In full bee suit – minus gloves – Fr Simon opens his Langstroth style beehive for the first time this Spring to check how his bees are doing, he’s in search for the queen, young bees known as ‘brood’, eggs and also examines honey production.
There’s little success finding the queen in the first couple of hives, a feat that by all stretches of the imagination seems impossible to the spectators beholding the swarming mass of wings and yellow and black fur. In the fourth hive the monk reaches in, he gently plucks out an unsuspecting queen bee, holding her by the thorax (the section between the head and the abdomen) and dots her with a yellow marker. It seems like a very delicate manoeuvre.
The queen bee can be identified in several ways, she is generally the largest in the colony, her abdomen is pointed while the others are blunt, her legs are splayed and her stinger does not have barbs – all things that might make her seem easily identifiable, but it is near impossible for the untrained eye.
However the process was made easier by using a ‘smoker’, which is a tool used to blow smoke on a beehive before examination by the beekeeper. The smoke masks chemicals released by bees when they are under attack, allowing the beekeeper to work while the colony’s defences are down.
‘The Magical World of the Honey Bee’ was a demonstration and insider look into the monastery’s beekeeping, or apiculture, that examined the types of bees, beekeeping itself, diseases, and the insect’s ecological and intrinsic importance and value in the world.
Born in east-Germany after World War II to an English father and Scottish mother, Fr Simon moved to Cork when he was three-years-old.
His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had all been in the British army, and he was close to signing on as well, before he felt his calling to the Church.
Speaking to The Irish Catholic, Fr Simon said: “The only reason I’m here sitting in front of you is because my dad was captured at Dunkirk, he was in the Royal Sussex Regiment.”
“He told my mother this story – he told us nothing about the war – but a German officer went up to him and said ‘for you British sir, the war is over’, and he was in a prison camp there for four years. But there was no one shooting at him for four years so that was a positive,” he said.
It was his best friend in the prison camp, a man from Mallow in Cork, that convinced him to visit Ireland.
After his family moved to Ireland he went to school in Glenstal, and after graduating in 1969 Fr Simon spent a year volunteering in Beliz, in Central America. Sometime after he returned he felt his calling to the Church as he stood on the grounds of the monastery in 1971, and it was in 1975 that he asked the abbot if he could start beekeeping; who agreed to the proposition.
At first he saw the bees as just honey producers, as a means to an end. “So, I looked at them very much as a utilitarian, something really not with their own intrinsic value which Pope Francis talks about again in Laudato Si’,” he said.
In his encyclical on the environment Pope Francis states: “Each organism, as a creature of God, is good and admirable in itself; the same is true of the harmonious ensemble of organisms existing in a defined space and functioning as a system. Although we are often not aware of it, we depend on these larger systems for our own existence.”
“We need only recall how ecosystems interact in dispersing carbon dioxide, purifying water, controlling illnesses and epidemics, forming soil, breaking down waste, and in many other ways which we overlook or simply ignore.”
Fr Simon says he is convinced of the ecological conversion the Pope discusses, in order for humanity to “walk on this earth with reverence and care, sharing it with others”.
The monk described the idea of the “technocratic” man, a term discussed in the Pontiff’s encyclical, being a obstacle to this conversion.
The ‘technocratic paradigm’ Pope Francis says tends to dominate economic and political life and accepts every advance of technology to the potential detriment of both the environment and humanity, “it is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit”.
The monk said he came to this realisation one day when he “suddenly saw a bee for the first time”.
“And that was dramatic. You know it was no longer something working for me gathering honey it was in itself an object. Here before me was something that had evolved over 100 million years, the most sophisticated creature, and I’d be as happy to squash it as if it was anything else.
“I saw the reality of something which made me stand back and admire, or love or respect or say this is my equal, this isn’t some pest or unit of production.”
The “radical ecological conversion” Fr Simon says, is a process in which people rediscover their connectedness with nature, where there isn’t an idea of superiority but a recognition of interdependence within the world.
Late last month Ireland joined a group of 20 countries that are dedicated to stopping the decline of bee populations, which has become a major concern in relation to food production and the possible wider ecological ramifications.
Ireland joined the ‘Coalition of the Willing on Pollinators’ during the 6th plenary of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in Medellin, Colombia on March 21 – the platform was founded by the United Nations Environment Programme.
Ireland already meets several of the commitments under the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan (AIPP) 2015 which aims to:
- Make Ireland pollinator friendly (on farmland, public land and private land).
- Raise awareness of pollinators and how to protect them.
- Manage pollinators appropriately – support beekeepers and growers.
- Expand knowledge of pollinators and pollination service.
- Collect evidence to track change and measure success.
In Trinity College blog ‘Campus Buzz’ Dr Jane Stout, a professor of Botany in Trinity College, writes about the AIPP saying: “The response has been overwhelming. More than 80 public and private organisations across the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have agreed to help deliver these objectives so far.
“The Heritage Council and Bord Bia co-fund a Project Officer at the National Biodiversity Data Centre to help implement the plan, and together with our partners, we have developed guidelines to provide tailored advice to different sectors – local communities, businesses, gardens, farmland and councils, as well as detailed ‘how-to’ guides (which can all be downloaded for free from www.pollinators.ie).”
Habitat loss is widely cited as being a major factor in the decimation of bee populations, with the switch to more intensive farming methods across the country.
The National Biodiversity Data Centre, funded by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, states that effective pollination by bees requires “crop land to be interspersed with more natural areas requiring a landscape scale/farm-wide approach”.
Fr Simon said: “If you look around the countryside all of the hedges have been cut, hedges are disappearing and you’ve got – as cow numbers increase – you’ve got more and more grass.
“And where are the bees going to get anything, there’s nothing – not a single thing. You know its such arrogance in my opinion. I mean I think every farmer should be told, look you’ve got to allot an acre to wildlife.”
Efforts to combat pollinator decline in urban areas have already started among environmental groups in countries such as Oslo, Norway, where participants are encouraged to provide flowers and safe havens for pollinators throughout the city to create a ‘bee highway’. People and organisations are invited to post their contribution on a website that maps out the bees’ route across the city.
The urbanisation and expansion of Dublin and other areas of Ireland are often associated with the decline of habitats and, subsequently, certain species of flora and fauna, but Fr Simon says urban or suburban areas can sometimes be better for bees due to the impact farming and monoculture has on their habitats.
The monk was first attracted to apiculture when he was a student of psychology and philosophy living in Balnagowan near Palmerstown Park in Dublin where he used to watch an ex-garda beekeeper open his hive with no protective gear, which “really impressed” him.
Despite the urban setting, bees were able to flourish in the environment, but some flowers are friendlier to pollinators than others with Fr Simon saying: “People should be much more cognisant that what they’re planting has some value beyond just looking nice for them.”
Perennials and single instead of double flowered plants are better for bees, as generally they provide more nectar and pollen.
Buyers are also prompted to check if pollinators are visiting the plant in their local garden centres, which is a sign they will be a hit with bees.
Many species will also have signs on them stating whether they are particularly pollinator friendly.
Disease is a prominent factor in the deaths of bees. Decades into his beekeeping Fr Simon lost all his furry swarm when they developed American foulbrood disease, caused by the paenibacillus larvae, which kills the bee while it’s forming.
The life cycle of a bee has four phases: egg, larva, pupa and adult. The process on average takes 24 days for drones, whose job is to mate with the queen, 16 days for queens, whose function is to lay eggs, and 21 days for worker bees – who do everything else in the hive.
It’s when the bee is at the larva stage that it becomes infected by ingesting spores that enter through its food.
“I lost all my bees, I got American foulbrood which is a notifiable disease, the Department of Agriculture comes down and kills them all, and I said I won’t begin again you know it’s been about 20 years,” said Fr Simon.
However, some time later he said: “I hadn’t got bees and a guy knocked on the door… and he said I’m Joe, I heard your bees are dead. He said no beekeeper should be without bees, I have some bees for you, and he brought an old battered van. He took out two or three beehives full of bees.”
From there he started again, and now has 10 occupied hives with about 10,000 bees in each at this time of the year.
Fr Simon said: “Most people would have looked at wasps or bees as pests or swatted them, so can you take something completely outside people’s experience and say, ‘Look guys, let’s look at these again with different eyes?’
“It’s to do with rediscovering our connectedness with nature. In other words, we’ve been brought up with this view that we’re sort of superior, we don’t belong to the web of life and are somehow a breed apart and that’s really dangerous because we are interdependent first of all, and we’re miserable in that existence.”
“We’ve got to get rid of this ideology that we are in control – we’re masters of creation.”
Speaking of the construction of a new school building at Glenstal, the monk said he felt “very sad” when the bulldozers and cranes cleared the site.
“What number of species were displaced? Without even a prayer or even a sense of: ‘I’m sorry we’re doing this’, you know an apology to all the mice, whatever was living there…for me I was very glad to feel that feeling. This is arrogance of the highest order to think that I can just clear that site, put down another road without any regard or even sensitivity to the wellbeing of the millions of species that occupy it and have occupied it way before we were ever here.”
He said believing man is master of all creatures in the world is wrong, saying that he wouldn’t even say humans are stewards of the earth, but that it is a kinship.
At ‘The Magical World of the Bees’ event Fr Simon said: “My hope for the day was that people would, by experiencing the wonders that they hadn’t known of these creatures, insignificant as they seem, although everybody is aware that bees are important but not an individual bee – that they would be open to the wonders they have missed and the wonders that are possible in front of their nose.”
For more reading, Fr Simon writes a bee blog which can be found at https://www.glenstal.com/abbey/latest/fr-simons-bee-blog