Causing a buzz at St Thomas’s

by Jo Duckles

First appeared in the Diocesan newspaper, The Door

THOUSANDS of honey bees have been given a home in a church yard in central Oxford.

Since last spring the sound of buzzing could be heard in the grounds of St Thomas’s Church. Priest-in-Charge, the Revd Jonathan Beswick, has wanted to keep bees since he was a boy and is delighted with the occupants of the hives. They were introduced last spring after a conversation with an enthusiastic PCC and advice from a local bee keeping expert. In their first season alone they produced 100 lbs of honey.

Environmental Bee Summit

Jonathan, who will be going to Oxford Friends of the Earth’s Bee Summit as Bishop John’s representative on 7 February, says: “The churchyard is like an acre of the most gorgeous countryside. It feels like a village churchyard in many ways.

“One of the figures in the glass at St Thomas’s is St Ambrose, one of the fathers of the church, holding a bee hive in his hands. When he was a baby in his cot a swarm landed on his face. When they left, they had just left a drop of honey on his lips, foretelling of the sweetness of his future teaching and preaching.”

Jonathan says the bees and the Christian faith go hand in hand in many ways, from the beeswax traditionally used to make church candles through to parallels with individual bees forming colonies to individual Christians making up the body of Christ.

“I lived in a monastery for five years when I left school. Some of the older brothers were committed to keeping bees. Over the years people who keep bees have interested or intrigued me,” he says.

2,000 eggs a day

In the right conditions, bee colonies can grow very quickly, with a queen laying 2,000 eggs a day at the height of the season. Jonathan, who describes keeping the stripy insects as a life changing experience, says: “One amazing moment was a friend taking a swarm and letting them out next to the hive, seeing them find their way into their new home, especially taking my glove off and putting my hand into the hive. Contrary to a lot of people’s expectations when bees swarm they are unlikely to sting anyone. They are not aggressive. If you put your hand amongst them they will walk over it without hurting you. It was an experience putting my hand into 20,000 bees and feeling all of those tiny feet tickling but going about their business.”

Another memorable moment last year was encountering a swarm of bees on Holywell Street. Jonathan was told that pest control were going to remove them, so offered to give them a new home in the church yard. “My beekeeping friend, who has done this before, very carefully broke them off the gutter into a box and we took them to St Thomas’s. I see them as Beckett’s Bees.Thomas Beckett, our patron saint, used to walk through the church yard. It’s good that our patron saint was familiar with the area.”

The Revd Jonathan Beswick is buzzing with enthusiasm for bee keeping.

The Revd Jonathan Beswick is buzzing with enthusiasm for bee keeping.

Jonathan admits to a few stings in his first few months as a beekeeper but believes the pain has been worth it. “Historically clergy have been beekeepers. Keeping bees speaks of a different pace of life in a society where we are encouraged to run ever faster on the treadmill.”

And the hives have attracted plenty of attention from people who use the churchyard as a short cut, with interested passers-by even leaving notes on the hives asking Jonathan to get in touch.

So, as Jonathan prepares to go along to the bee summit, he has been reading up on the plight of this declining species. Watching More Than Honey a 2012 film by Markus Imhoof, hammered home the sobering thought that if bees die out, a third of the world’s food supply will disappear. It highlights how in China, where bees have died out due to excessive use of pesticides, migrant workers collect pollen and have to go around with paint brushes, pollinating plants.

Another film on bees is 2009’s Vanishing of the Bees by George Langworthy and Maryam Henein. For more on bee keeping contact the British Bee Keepers Association, www.bbka.org.uk, 0871 811 2282.

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