Putting “Laudato Si’” to work

The 500,000 to 750,000 bees on the 42-acre garden have homes throughout the Washington monastery. (Photo by Rhina Guidos)

The 500,000 to 750,000 bees on the 42-acre garden have homes throughout the Washington monastery. (Photo by Rhina Guidos)

WASHINGTON (CNS) – Before that now famous encyclical came out this week, a group at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington was already busy putting the spirit of “Laudato Si’” to work — or rather, they were putting bees to work to help the environment.

A group called the Franciscan Monastery Garden Guild gathers several times a week to tend the plants and flowers that visitors to the site see. They also care for a produce garden that yields food for events at the venue, for the friars who live there and other groups in the area, and also for the poor of Washington and its environs. Some of them also work behind the scenes to tend to more than half a million bees that live on the grounds of the 42-acre garden.

Joe Bozik, a retired civil engineer and the main beekeeper of the group, said having bees on the grounds “is in keeping with spirit of St. Francis.”

The bees, which were about to be displaced when he found them, have a home, they help pollinate the garden, the garden in turn generates food for those who live at the monastery and fresh food for the poor in the city.

Bees at work at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land. (photo by Rhina Guidos)

Bees at work at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land. (photo by Rhina Guidos)

Though Bozik had no previous training with bees, he grew up on a dairy farm in upstate New York and always wanted to work with honeybees. He joined the garden guild in 2000, and six years later, he started looking for a hive for the monastery garden and came into contact with a woman in nearby Maryland who was moving away and was trying to relocate 60,000 bees.

Since then, two hives have turned into 15, with a population that can range between 500,000 to 750,000 bees. Their pollination has increased the yield of eggplant, squash, tomatoes and other produce in the garden, Bozik said.

Besides helping pollinate, the bees also provide honey produced, bottled and sold at the monastery gift shop. Twice a year, the group invites the public to see the environmental benefits of the pollinators during a honey extraction event where they can help collect honey that is later sold for the benefit of the monastery — some of it goes for equipment needed to maintain the hives. Visitors can also tour the produce garden where the bees work.

One of the honeycombs at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land. (photo by Rhina Guidos)

One of the honeycombs at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land. (photo by Rhina Guidos)

“They observe us working with the bees, they see how gentle the bees are, they’re not out to sting people,” Bozik said. “It’s great education, an eye-opener to see the creatures.”

For some city dwellers who descend on the monastery to observe, the extraction event may be their only friendly encounter with bees. The work of the bees draws some people of faith but also others whose main focus is the environmental benefits of the insects, Bozik said.

“They help preserve creation, improve creation,” he said.

On Saturday morning, around 9 a.m. eastern time, we will briefly look at the honey extraction process at the monastery via livestream using Periscope on our CNS Twitter feed (@CatholicNewsSvc) and tour the monastery garden where the bees do their work.

Some fun facts about the Franciscan Monastery bees from Joe Bozik:

-In April 2006, the Guild established a honey bee committee and introduced two beehives on the grounds.

– A queen bee lives for three years. Around July or August, bee “cells” raise 4-7 new queens. The strongest kills the others and takes over (that doesn’t sound very Franciscan).

– Egg hatching takes 18 days.  Queens feed on “royal jelly” so they are larger than the other 30,000-40,000 bees in their colony.

– If a viable queen does not emerge or survives, the beekeepers may have to buy a queen bee to start a new colony. She is shipped with two attendant bees in a little box.

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