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,, 0871 811 2282.

Swifts and churches

Swifts nest under the eaves of St Etheldreda’s Church Horley.

Swifts nest under the eaves of St Etheldreda’s Church Horley.

Swift numbers in Britain have decreased by up to 40% in the last 20 years. There are several likely reasons for this, but one is the loss of nest sites. Swifts return to the same nest hole every year, and so when buildings need repair or are demolished, nest sites can be lost. Also, almost without exception modern buildings do not have the gaps and crevices which are essential for Swifts to nest. So largely it is older, less well-sealed buildings with a few gaps under the eaves or tiles or in the pointing, which are favoured by Swifts – like some of our churches.

We are trying to encourage people to notice Swifts and where they are nesting. If local people know where the nest sites are, it’s easier to look after them, and to encourage Swift-friendly building work.

This is as relevant to churches as to other buildings, because churches are still important nesting places for Swifts. There are at least 10 churches in the Cherwell District which have nesting Swifts.

Swifts nesting in a church can easily go unnoticed. Parties of screaming Swifts may be obvious, but they are extremely adept at entering their nest holes; add the facts that nests are not visible from the outside and that Swifts leave no mess, and it’s not surprising that the nests are often overlooked.

There are several ways in which parishioners, PCCs and church authorities can help.

One is by being alert to the possibility that Swifts may be using the church for nesting.  Screaming parties of Swifts seen regularly near the church, are an indication that they are nesting in the building or very close by.

In the period when Swifts are actually nesting, the nest hole it is illegal to disturb it. The same applies to all birds. At other times the ideal solution is to leave the particular space alone if at all possible. If this cannot be done, advice should be obtained about Swift-friendly building work and about providing alternatives (see below*).

Also if Swifts are found to be using the church for nesting or if screaming parties are seen nearby, it may be possible to install a nest box behind the louvred windows in the tower. This would need the support of the PCC and approval from the Diocese, but it is relatively cheap and simple to do, and it does not involve drilling into the masonry. It has been successfully done in several churches in Cambridgeshire and local churches in Oxfordshire are now following their example.

The Cherwell Swifts Conservation Project has these aims:

  • to protect Swifts’ nesting places
  • to encourage the creation of more nest places and
  • to raise awareness of the reasons for Swifts’ declining population and what people can do about it

*For more information see the following websites:

or in Oxfordshire contact Chris Mason (

From tiny seeds in the dark…


A couple of weeks back I spent a Saturday afternoon with forty other people of all ages in the beauty of Wytham Woods. It was the first gathering of the Oxford Forest Church group, and we’d come together to explore nature and connect with God.

On that clear crisp afternoon we spent time both together and alone, with space to be and to breathe in the woods. Amongst the fallen leaves we reflected on the coming darkness of advent. Our surroundings gave us much to reflect on. From the way the leaves were being shed so that the tree can survive the winter; to the way those same leaves provide essential nourishment, protection and darkness for the tiny seeds from the tree to find life in the spring.

Research has started to attribute certain health and behavioural issues, at least in part, to a growing absence of time in nature. John Muir, the Scottish-born American naturalist, is credited with saying, “I’d rather be in the mountains thinking of God, than in church thinking about the mountains.” And for many of us time outside enjoying nature is good for our souls, as well as our minds and bodies. Wonder and awe are important sources of our spiritual growth, and such transcendent moments, when we feel deeply connected to something bigger than ourselves, often occur in nature. This nature connection can also have a positive impact on wider environmental issues – after all we don’t protect what we don’t care about, and you don’t tend to care about what you’ve never experienced.

That afternoon in the woods was a chance for us to mindfully engage with nature and prepare for the darkest part of the year, and the busyness of the pre-Christmas rush. It was food for the journey, engaging us spiritually in fresh ways. Of course none of this is new or restricted to the concept of Forest Church – it draws on much older traditions when sacred places and practices were outside, and it is just one expression of perhaps a wider thirst for a deeper connection with nature and something bigger than ourselves.* But it could be part of what we need to be physically, mentally and spiritually healthy – as well as respond well to the signs of our times.

As we embraced the falling darkness in the woods at Wytham we reflected on what we wanted to take into this time of advent. Like the tiny seeds beneath the fallen leaves all around us, it might be little and fragile – but making space to participate with nature this advent may be just what we need for mind, body and soul, and enable us to hear the familiar story in a fresh way.

This article first appeared in The Oxford Mail

* Nor, for that matter, is it restricted to Oxford – groups are springing up all over the country – see

For more information about Forest Church and groups in the Diocese of Oxford see

Cowley Deanery conservation project

This article first appeared in The Door July 2013 edition

AN Earthing Faith initiative to help congregations re-connect with nature has been launched in the Cowley deanery.

Andy with a feathered friend. The area, which is already renowned for the eco work done at St Mary and St John Churchyard, on the Cowley Road, is set to become the subject of a survey by A Rocha UK, a Christian environmental agency.

Dr Andy Gosler, (pictured right) a research lecturer in conservation and ornithology and a member of Holy Trinity, Headington Quarry, is the man behind the initiative. Andy has enlisted the help of local and national conservation and natural history groups. The scheme includes ringing robins so that children can identify them as individuals in churchyards and breakfast walks – early morning bird watching and wildlife walks in the deanery.

It is looking at a fungus survey in churchyards, looking at fungi and lichens that may have been growing for 800 or 900 years.

The Ashmolean Natural History Society, God’s Acre Foundation, Oxford Urban Wildlife Group and others are involved. “A Rocha wanted to set up an on-line system for recording nature in churchyards and wanted a couple of churches. I have offered them the whole deanery. They are looking at urban hubs, reconnecting urban situations with nature, and Oxford is the perfect place to test this,” said Andy, who is developing international links for the project and says it could spread from Cowley into other areas of the city. There is a lot that makes Cowley extremely suitable. There are significant areas of urban deprivation and problem areas. It’s exciting.”

Beat the winter blues…


Tired of the snow already? Well, maybe you can enjoy the ocean vicariously through our family. We attend St. Andrews Church in Chinnor and are very involved with A Rocha.

Our family Bob, Cindy, Bobby (12), Sarah (10), Heather (9), and Matthew (6) have been working towards a volunteer trip to Kenya where we are presently. Bob is helping A Rocha Kenya develop a marine conservation programme and A Rocha more broadly to think theologically about the ocean.

You can follow our trip on and the marine programme at Check out our faith section which has a downloadable inductive Bible study and other resources to help you think about your faith and the ocean. Maybe it will help beat the winter blues!

A Rocha Chiltern Gateway led service and picnic – 11th March

Join A Rocha for a Chiltern Gateway Project led service in the stunning 12th century church St. Mary the Virgin, Hambleden (RG9 6RX). This will be an informal service starting at 9:40 am on 11th March. Bring your own lunch and join the Chiltern Gateway Project team for a picnic and walk along the Thames from the church (leaving after the service for a short, easy walk). Families welcome.

For more information, contact Bob Sluka on or 01844 350259.

Free tree packs for communities

Help plant 6 million trees to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee.

To celebrate the anniversary of Queen Elizabeth ll’s historic 2012 Diamond Jubilee, the Woodland Trust is helping millions of people across the UK to come together to plant 6 million trees.

They hope neighbours, communities, schools and families will come together to plant thousands of individual trees in their gardens, playgrounds and community spaces – each taking the chance to mark this special moment in history in a way that will stay with them forever.

Schools and community groups are welcome to apply for free tree packs to help local people get involved in the celebration, or you can browse our range of Jubilee trees to find the perfect one for your garden.

Interested? Contact the Woodland Trust on 0845 293 5689 or email

via Help plant 6 million trees to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee.