The Bees Knees
By Sean Sullivan
“We just put them to bed for the winter,” said Fr. Carl Chudy.
He serves as Interfaith Outreach Coordinator, Media Director and Delegation Councilor for Holliston’s Fatima Shrine. Yet over the past several years, parishioners may know him more for his honeybee outreach. The creatures are newcomers to the church grounds, and Fr. Chudy has taken the hives under his wing.
Colonies colloquially are called a hive, nest, drift, an erst, grist, a stand, swarm, and perhaps most endearingly - a rabble.
The work of caring for the bees takes a village, especially in more-northern and colder climes, and so Fr. Chudy is joined by church members Jess McGuire and Cathy Spinoza in the effort. All three have completed a course in honeybee husbandry.
“I think we learn as we grow,” said McGuire. The church now hosts four hives on its sprawling natural landscape, and has been doing so for as many years. Each rabble can vary in terms of temperament and tenacity.
Every hive, she said, “It’s like opening a Christmas present. You never know what these tiny little insects can do.”
“You kind of roll with the punches,” seconded Fr. Chudy. To mitigate the blows, the church opted for an Italian breed of bees, a type that tends to be less aggressive. They are asubset of European honeybees, familiar to folks by their brown and black tiger-stripe-patterned abdomens. Yet despite their more-docile reputation, the church’s tiny charges are still bees at heart.
“We have gotten stung,” said McGuire. “It’s highly entertaining.”
But why bees?
McGuire said the effort was inspired by the convergence of the ecological and ecclesiastical, a philosophical place where the two concerns connect.
“It’s part of a spiritual project,” she said. “Being charged by god to care for the earth.” Of the 23 acres of church property, “We’re turning over a good portion of that to meadowland. To assist our pollinators in the community. For me, it’s very healing.”
Spinoza agreed. “It’s really about the community. Everybody’s sort of rooting for the bees.” She joined Fr. Chudy and McGuire to help tend to their growing flock of little fliers, a pursuit that can entail a lot of work, knowhow, and much attention to detail.
“They were kind enough to take me on as their apprentice,” said Spinoza.
The church hopes eventually to bring its number of hives to seven. The group has had a success (survival) rate of about 50 percent over its several winters tending to the bees, not atypical for this cold and long winter climate.
“In the spring we hope to add a couple more” hives, said Fr. Chudy. The group arrived at the aspiration of seven hives, he added, because of the number’s spiritual significance.
“It’s kind of symbolic of being whole and complete.”
But it’s been a bad year for bees, he said, owing in part perhaps to the summer’s numerous and voluminous downpours. Yet one sunny spot of the season was that the beekeepers were for the first time able to harvest a little honey for the bipedal community.
Fr. Chudy said that the hives had recently been tucked in and sent to sleep for the season, but the little buggers don’t actually doze all winter, or even go dormant in a general sense. Rather, honeybees remain active during these long and cold northern months.
They become shut-ins during the darkest season, clustered in a sort of collective and long-winded shiver to stay warm and survive. Vibrating their wing muscles generates the heat energy needed for wintering, and the calories required during those weeks comes, of course, from honey.
About 70 pounds of the stuff is needed to sustain a single colony of bees over our northern winters. At nearly 1,400 calories per pound of the viscous and valuable golden goo, that clocks in at a smidge under 100,000 calories per hive during that season alone.
Lack of food and frigid temps aren’t the only challenges the honeybees must handle. A species of mite with a menacing moniker (Varroa destructor) is parasitic to and preys upon the pollinators, can decimate an infected hive.
Vigilant beekeepers are aware of hazards confronted by the colonies, and take steps to mitigate them. Use of a few chemical pesticides is considered safe for honeybees, and sprinkling a line of cinnamon powder around a hive is said to ward off invading ants.
Keepers can also supplement a colony’s food stores during winter with prescribed, sugar-based products. Such and sundry are among the tricks of the beekeeper trade.
Still, the lives of bees and the synergy of their little societies are still largely a mystery to entomologists and beekeepers. Colonies can be sensitive to subtle changes and contaminants in their environment.
“You can lose the whole hive,” said McGuire, “if someone uses Roundup” nearby.
“Sometimes beekeepers never know why you lose your hive,” said Spinoza.”Everything can change on a dime.”
The sight of dead bees outside the hive on snow or frozen ground can be a good omen, a sign that the hive has brought its fallen comrades outside the shelter as part of keeping their digs clean. Cleansing duty commences during sunny and unseasonably warm winter days (50 degrees and up), when honeybees sortie out to dispose of waste products produced by the hive.
With winter’s onset, drone bees are evicted from the colony, having served their purpose. With the falling mercury, nature’s cold calculus of survival becomes acute, and there just aren’t enough calories to go around. Health of the hive is paramount.
“Every bee has a job,” said Spinoza. “To have that many insects working together to create one thing. It’s a group effort.” Here she may have equally been referencing the flocks of tiny fliers and the human shepherds tending to them.
““There’s so much care that goes into each. It’s really miraculous to watch them.”