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Hospitality and Honeybees: Worker Bees Inspire Catholic Worker

Casa Juan Diego Beehive

Casa Juan Diego’s hospitality has been stretched to new limits in recent months as we welcomed a colony of honeybees to make themselves at home in our garden.

The ecological importance of bees is undisputed, but so are the heart-wrenching obstacles to their survival. An absence of honeybees and their pollination work would greatly destabilize the world’s food supply. However, nearly half of all hives in the US were lost last year because of a phenomenon known as “colony collapse,” where entire hives die.

The exact cause of colony collapse is still unknown, but research connects it with pesticides, parasites, and the genetic modification of plants.

Our bees arrived one March morning after a local bee-keeper contacted our master gardener for permission to keep a hive in our garden. Once the bees were settled, I took every opportunity I could to crouch by the hive and watch their simple rhythm of speeding out on fresh foraging trips and returning heavy with pollen. One particularly tender moment, I even witnessed a worker carry out a dead bee from the hive to “bury” her carefully in the leaf litter a few feet away. The precise, communal choreography of the hive is noteworthy: the queen lays eggs, some workers forage, others tend the hive and the whole colony thrives because of the simple individual work of thousands. Their work has made our garden extra vibrant this season.

I surprised myself with how quickly I fell in love with the bees. My grandmother, how-ever, was not so surprised – the patron saint that she and I share, Rita, is the patron saint of beekeepers. When Saint Rita was an infant, her parents found her lying in a field while bees dropped honey into her open mouth.

My fascination with the bees grew each day, but the real test came one morning when I was inevitably stung for the first time. After brushing off the initial pain of the sting, I woke up the next day with my lip swollen about three times its normal size. The genuine laughter and sympathy that my ordeal elicited from our guests and the other Catholic Workers was entirely worth it – even at their worst, the bees were still teaching us to be graceful with others and ourselves.

A few days later, our beekeeper invited me to join in the weekly inspection of the hive. I had some appre-hension, but my curiosity was stronger. Everything was lovely in those first few sweet, docile minutes as the bees were gorging on honey – their instinctive response to the beekeeper’s smoke. After a while, though, they became increasingly agitated.

Every instinct, every fiber of my being screamed for me to drop the comb I was holding and run. My feet stayed put by sheer force of will. At some point, though, I had a moment of deep clarity: I was fully aware of the bees circling my head, buzzing excitedly, and landing on my veil, my gloves, and my clothes. But despite the chaos around me, I was perfectly still and entirely unharmed. And for that brief, infinite moment, I had no fears. Encounters with the divine come in all shapes and sizes.

Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin were great supporters of distributism – economics which promote human flourishing by encouraging local agriculture and craftsmanship. The trifold Catholic Worker vision included houses of hospitality, the clarification of thought, and agronomic universities – originally proposed as farms where manual labor, study, and discussion would restore dignity to workers and scholars alike. A connection to the land has always been a part of the Catholic Worker desire for human wholeness in the Kingdom of God.

The decision to host bees in our garden is an expression of the Catholic Worker tradition of direct action for the common good. Instead of waiting for governments or large environmental agencies to do something to save the bees, we contribute what we can by offering our beautiful garden as a home for them. Instead of despairing over the death threats facing honeybees, we find joy in the happy simplicity of watching them live.

Someday, perhaps, the bees will gift us with an abundance of honey. Honey is primarily the bees’ main food source, and only secondarily a treat for us. While of course it would be nice, it will be okay with us if our bees do not give us honey this year. It is telling, though, that we find this waiting for a reward difficult. We want to see results on our own time-line. As Catholic Workers, and as human beings, the most painful – and also the most important – situations are those we cannot easily control or fix. All true blessings come from God and in God’s perfect timing (which, of course, remains very different from our own). We cannot gauge the health of our spiritual life or the success of our work by the frequency of good feelings, just as we cannot judge the worth of the hive by how much honey we receive.

C. S. Lewis wrote of the inherent vulnerability that accompanies love, warning, “Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even an animal.” I am grateful to the bees for reminding me that the divine joy of loving our guests, our families, and the natural world grows from and gives meaning to the occasional sting.

Authors’ Note: In between the writing of this article and publication, we received our first taste of honey from our hive. Delightfully sweet, it had hints of radish and argula-flowering plants in our garden, of which the bees are particularly fond. The waiting was worth it!


Houston Catholic Worker, June-August 2013, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3.