TAMPA, Fla. – While most people stay clear of bees to avoid stings, for Zachary Elliott, OFM, getting stung is an unavoidable hazard of his newfound undertaking. Zack is the resident beekeeper at Sacred Heart Parish, an enterprise he started in February just ahead of the coronavirus outbreak.
Although the pandemic wasn’t the motivation, beekeeping has served as a welcome distraction over the past several months for everyone involved. It has also provided new life to the parish’s school grounds, according to Zack, whose wardrobe, in addition to his Franciscan habit, now includes special gloves and a jacket outfitted with a hat and wire mesh face covering – although even the protective beekeeping gear hasn’t prevented an occasional sting, a half dozen to date, he says.
While Sacred Heart Academy, located two miles north of the church, was shut down in 2013, the physical plant continued to thrive with faith formation activities and parish events. But it was time to turn attention to maintaining and improving the utilization of the grounds, which prompted George Corrigan, OFM, pastor of the parish, to launch an ongoing initiative to revitalize the shuttered school’s 10 acres of property.
As part of the initiative, which was unveiled at the end of last year, Zack thought beekeeping would be an ideal use for a portion of the school grounds. A parishioner – retired immigration attorney and former beekeeper J. Michael Shea – got wind of Zack’s idea and offered to help get the project off the ground. Zack also gained practical information from books and YouTube videos.
“We were fortunate that he took an interest because his experience in beekeeping has been invaluable. He has been my mentor every step of the way,” said Zack, who, with Shea, visited a local farmer/beekeeper who supplied them with three hives.
As news of Zack’s beekeeping endeavor swarmed the Sacred Heart community, his launch of a parish garden club soon after was met with equal enthusiasm. Twenty parishioners volunteered to cultivate and prepare a portion of the grounds for plantings of flowers and vegetables to serve as a pollination source for the honey bees, which are a key cog in the planet’s ecosystem and food supply chain.
Beekeeping, Gardening and Franciscan Ideals
This intertwined initiative of beekeeping and gardening, perhaps not coincidentally, is on the same plain with Franciscan ideals – and, like the pandemic, has placed the care for creation and the environment at the forefront.
“It has given people something to do when they were finally able to leave their homes. They are gardening in the fresh air within the guidelines of social distancing. We have a lot of parishioners who love to garden as a hobby, so this has helped them get through these difficult months. I think when the hives produce more honey, there will be even more interest in the entire beekeeping operation,” said Zack, who noted that although in-person parish life was suspended during the pandemic, friars were staying connected to parishioners by participating in virtual events and meetings (including a wedding rehearsal by Zoom conference), producing video-recorded reflections, and implementing a telephone chain to check on the elderly population.
“There is already talk of expanding our beekeeping and vegetable garden into a parish canticle farm like other parishes in the area have done,” added Zack. Canticle farms and vegetable gardens are rooted in faith, social justice, and care for the environment.
Zack provided a quick tutorial on beekeeping, explaining that separate colonies live, breed, and make honey in the three hives – which each consist of a brood box of 10 frames. Within the brood frames, the queen lays her eggs and the worker bees store pollen, nectar, and honey. On top of the brood box is a super box, also consisting of 10 frames, where the bees make and store their excess honey.
It’s the excess honey, he said, that’s extracted with a centrifuge, a rapidly rotating container that applies centrifugal forces to its contents to typically separate fluids from solids, or fluids of different density.
“We only harvest the excess honey, but in a way, we are actually ‘stealing’ it from the bees because they create this excess for their own use in anticipation of seasonal change or hard times,” said Zack, noting that a healthy hive can have anywhere from 20,000 to 60,000 bees, including workers and drones. The workers, all female, do the heavy lifting – procuring the pollen and nectar to make the honey and feed the colony – while the drones, all male, mate with the queen.
A Lesson in Humanity
Zack, a New Jersey native who professed his solemn vows in 2006, says that each colony is a micro-organism within itself.
“Every bee within a colony has a specific role, but they are all dependent on one another. They can go about their tasks in relative independence, but they are at their best when working as a team. We can learn a lot from bees. If only humans worked so well together,” he said, noting that the worker bees travel up to five miles from their hive to pollinate.
Before the colonies became self-sufficient, Zack supplemented the hives with sugar water to keep them from starving – a precaution that is usually exercised in spring and autumn. Although less frequent than in the early months of establishing the colonies, Zack still inspects the hive for threats from other insects.
“Once it is determined that the hives are fully acclimated to the broader environment and that a significant amount of excess honey is being produced, we will consider expanding the existing hives with more boxes, and adding new hives as the colonies grow,” said Zack, who has been assigned to Sacred Heart since 2011, and whose pastoral ministries include working with the parish RCIA program.
“The property isn’t being used for much, so we have plenty of space to expand our beekeeping and gardening. We will just have to see where this venture takes us,” said Zack, who hopes to jar and sell enough of the harvested excess honey at the Sacred Heart Gift & Book Store, the parish’s small retail space next to the church.
“Suffice it to say, the parish is abuzz, pun intended, with our future potential in apiary enterprises,” he added.
— Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.