For the love of bees

The Rev. Sheilagh Ashworth keeps three essential items with her: her hive tool, her pen knife and an oil stock, for anointing. Photo: Saskia Rowley

“The apple trees were coming into bloom,
but no bees droned among the blossoms,
so there was no pollination and there would be no fruit.”

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

There’s an old custom called “telling the bees.”

Download PDF
Download as PDF

The Rev. Sheilagh Ashworth is using her hive tool—a thin piece of metal with a right-angled hook at its end—to pry sticky bits of honey and ease languid bees off the top of an open hive box as she relays this piece of folklore.

“If an important thing happens in your life—there’s a wedding, or a child is born, or someone died—you must tell the bees. If you don’t, they’ll leave.” You’ll go to check on the bees, she says, “and they’ll be gone! Completely gone! No note, nothing.”

Ashworth calmly prods at her hive. She wears no protective gear. The hive tool is one of three essential items she keeps on her person, she says; the other two are a pen knife and an oil stock, for anointing.

Ashworth is the rector of the parish of Lloydtown, a two-point parish serving the rural towns of Kettleby and Schomberg, Ont. For the last seven years, she has also been an amateur apiarist, carefully tending to a colony of about 40,000 honeybees.

Since she began beekeeping, Ashworth says, she has seen changes in the bees. “They don’t build up as much as they used to build up, the amount of honey you get is way less than it used to be. And it’s a lot more work. Proper pest management is a lot of work, where it didn’t used to be before.”

The fate of the poor apiarist who neglected to “tell the bees” rings familiar today. Bees face a myriad of problems, including plagues of new diseases, parasitic mites and colony collapse disorder, a not-wholly-understood phenomenon wherein the majority of worker bees in a colony simply disappear.

Bees, along with many of the more than 700 native species of pollinators—including butterflies, moths, wasps, flies, some beetles and hummingbirds—found in Canada are facing decline. A study by York University researchers recently published in the Journal of Insect Conservation found that the American bumblebee, a species once common to Ontario, is now facing “imminent extinction.”

Biodiversity in general is at risk. A study published in the journal Biological Conservation in April found that more than 40 per cent of insect species are threatened with extinction due to habitat loss caused by intensive agriculture and urbanization; pollution from synthetic pesticides and fertilizers; pathogens and introduced species; and climate change. And in May, a United Nations-backed study concluded a shocking one million species on the planet are threatened with extinction, a number higher than ever before in human history. Species extinctions are accelerating at an “unprecedented” rate due to human activity, the report found, with many species projected to go extinct within decades.

A number of environmental factors are behind pollinator decline, but many scientists identify neonicotinoids—commonly used pesticides containing nicotine—as a main culprit. Health Canada has announced restricted use of neonicotinoid pesticides, cancelling some uses and limiting others. Harder lines have been drawn in the EU, which banned neonicotinoids altogether in 2018. However, the degree to which these restrictions should be drawn is contested, and other dangers—environmental shifts due to climate change and decreasing plant diversity—remain.

A quote commonly (though likely erroneously) attributed to Albert Einstein asserts that if the bees go, humans go soon after. People have been cultivating bees and harvesting their honey for centuries; a quick search indicates that honey is mentioned around 100 times in the Bible. But losing bees does not simply mean less of the sweet stuff. It also means that plants like apples, cherries, squash and certain field crops won’t be properly pollinated. It means crop failure and disruptions in the food chain. It means the eerie silence of empty air as blossoms go to seed.

“Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us.”

Pope Francis, Laudato Si

“In a sense, this environmental moment is challenging us to rethink what it means to be human, at the species level,” says Stephen Scharper. An associate professor at the School of the Environment and the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto, Scharper describes his area of work at the intersection of ecology, religious ethics and the environment as an “overarching quest [to] look at the ecological impetus to a new ontology.”

It’s a heady subject, one Scharper comes by honestly, ever since his mother introduced him at an early age to the theology of French philosopher and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin—“My mom was a big fan of Teilhard and this notion of the spirit at work in evolution and in the unfolding of the cosmos.” While studying for his master’s degree in liberation theology, he discovered Gustavo Gutiérrez and Latin American liberation theology, as well as Thomas Berry’s new cosmology. (Scharper holds a Master’s in Theology from the University of Toronto and a PhD in religious studies from McGill University, and is a senior fellow of Massey College and a fellow of Trinity College at University of Toronto.)

Yet concerns of the cosmos, for Scharper, intersect with some of its smallest inhabitants.

In 2016, Scharper gave a lecture entitled “Falling in love with the earth: Pope Francis, Bees, and the Quest for an Integral Ecology” as part of a University of Toronto Mississauga lecture series. Scharper was inspired by the pope’s writing on the environment in his encyclical, Laudato Si’.

“In the encyclical…there’s a beautiful segment where [the pope] says, with each species that is lost, we lose that voice of the divine, that it’s a part of revelation,” says Scharper. “Others have said it’s like tearing out a page of scripture. The pope says we have no such right.”

A Christian understanding of nature as a revelation of God should make Christians very concerned about species extinction, Scharper says. He recalls hearing a homily by the then-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in 2008.

“He gave a beautiful homily on species extinction. He referred to Noah and the ark and he said, ‘Imagine if Noah had not been faithful…. This is what we’re doing. We have broken faith by willfully allowing, and forcing, these species into extinction.’”

This idea ties into the Christian social teaching of the common good, Scharper says. “This is why corporate greed is antithetical to Christian social teaching and the common good tradition, because the common good demands that we protect bees for the sake of our food worldwide.”

There is a need to reframe our entire relationship to nature, Scharper suggests. In his book The Natural City, Scharper draws on a quote from Roman Catholic priest and ecological theologian Thomas Berry: “The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.”

It is easier to clear-cut a forest when we think of it as a collection of objects instead of a communion of subjects, says Stephen Scharper, an associate professor at the School of the Environment and the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. Photo: Amelia Martin

“When we want to oppress something or destroy it, we turn it into an object,” Scharper says. If we say animals don’t have souls, it becomes easier to kill them; if we believe plants don’t feel, it becomes easier to clear-cut a forest. “This shows that there is a deeper interconnection, not only physically but psychically and spiritually…. For people of faith who are examining this, this is all part of the communication of the divine. For Tom Berry, the universe is the primary source or revelation—all our scriptures come from that experience of responding to this universe. That’s God’s opening gambit in self-manifestation: the universe.”

Solving the pollinator problem, and species extinction in general, is not “a matter of fine-tuning or shopping more consciously within a consumer culture,” Scharper says.

“This is an invitation to a revolutionary way of looking at the earth and each other as deeply connected, and not disassociated. That’s what this is about. It’s a reframing—morally, spiritually, culturally, economically and politically.”

“My son, eat honey, for it is good,
and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste.
Know that wisdom is such to your soul;
if you find it, there will be a future,
and your hope will not be cut off.”

Proverbs 24: 13-14

On an azure-skied, sunny day in June, in a patch of tall grass next to Ashworth’s hives teeming with honeybees, these problems seem far away.

Ashworth loads a smoker with pine hamster bedding and egg cartons, igniting it with a barbeque lighter. She pumps the creaky bellows and releases the scented smoke into the air. The smoke will get in the bees’ eyes and block the pheromone receptors with which they communicate, calming and incapacitating them.

“OK, so a lesson about being with the bees,” Ashworth says. “They want us to get to a place where we’re peaceful and kind of chill. That’s definitely what they like.”

It’s mating season, and the air is filled with a steady drone of buzzing. Ashworth eases the lid off of a hive box and removes the “queen excluder”—a metal grate that leaves space for regular-sized worker and drone bees to pass through but blocks the larger queen bee.

Apiary tools are charmingly simple, relatively unchanged since their invention. Hives, large wooden boxes filled with thin frames on which the bees vertically build their honeycomb, were invented in the 1840s, according to Ashworth. “The system we use now for bees was started by a Methodist minister who was depressed and hiding from his work,” she says. “He would come and hide with the bees…. He noticed the that they really liked three-eighths of an inch, a centimetre—when they built their comb, they always built it with that much space. So he invented this system so that you can remove the bees without having to kill them—you can take the honey without damaging them.”

Ashworth pulls out a frame from the box. Inside is its own world, teeming with fuzzy, buzzing bodies. She points at different sections of the comb—covered cells filled with runny spring honey, glossy sections filled with pollen, some dotted with little white pupae and eggs.

Ashworth’s bees are Buckfast bees, a breed which was, fittingly, saved from extinction by a Benedictine monk. Brother Adam of the Buckfast Abbey in England nurtured the only surviving colonies after a plague of parasitic mites caused a wave of colony collapse in the early 1900s. Today, the University of Guelph Honey Bee Research Centre has been able to keep and propagate Buckfasts.

Ashworth took some courses on beekeeping at the University of Guelph and has learned through trial and error over the last seven years. The priest, who grew up in Scarborough, always wanted to be a farmer, she says, but couldn’t afford to buy land.

“I realized…that I need to be outside as part of my vocation, and do some tending of creation,” she says. “[With] beekeeping, you don’t need to own the land—this is owned by a neighbor, and they’re really happy to have the bees here. You can start small, you don’t have to take care of them every day like sheep and other livestock.”

Hearing Ashworth speak to, muse about and bless her bees (“I always say a little blessing on my way out from them—God bless you, bees!”), a beekeeping priest seems like ever more of a natural fit.

“A bee colony is a super-organism. It’s like Christians—one Christian is no Christian, right? Because we need community. One bee is no bee—that’s what makes it an organism…one organism with different parts. I’m sure St. Paul would have more to say about that.”

Bees reproduce and form new colonies by swarming. On this day, there happens to be a swarm of Ashworth’s bees hanging off a low tree branch, a giant clot of buzzing bees crowding together in a single mass.

A swarm of bees. Photo: Sheilagh Ashworth

It typically takes about an hour to get a swarm into a new hive, Ashworth says.

Swarming happens typically in the spring, when a colony runs out of space or hatches new queen bees. Then the old queen and a large group of worker bees leave the hive to start a new one.

Ashworth has a theory about queen bees. “The queen has maybe three or four days of mating, where she’s out, she flies for about three or four days, mates as much as she can. Then she comes back inside after these days of glory in the sun, she comes back inside and she’s in this dark box, and everything she makes looks like and behaves like sunlight,” she says. “The honey looks like sunlight. The wax makes the best candles that look just like sunlight. Everything that she does. The propolis and the pollen look like sunlight.

“Some people say [bees] are divine beings,” Ashworth adds. “I wouldn’t say they’re wrong.”

With the dangers facing pollinator species, beekeepers have had to adapt. While once prevailing wisdom was the bigger the hive, the better, hives now must be smaller to protect against mites while overwintering, Ashworth says. Climate change has caused warmer winters and a higher chance of mites and mould. Local farmers in her area have stopped using neonicotinoid pesticides to help protect insects.

But taking care of her colony is a tangible way to help the earth, Ashworth says.

“We fret and worry about everything that’s happening in the world, and it feels like you’re powerless all the time. And then you come to the bee yard. That puts things back in perspective.”

For Eugene Park, it was learning about issues like colony collapse that led him to try his hand at beekeeping. “I’m a scientist, that’s my job. I’ve always had a fascination with nature—bugs, fish, animals, that sort of thing—so bees were just a logical extension of that,” Park says. He signed up for a beekeeping course at the botanical gardens in Toronto, where he lives. “Once I had taken that course and had my hands on a hive, I was absolutely hooked.”

Park is a parishioner at St. John’s Anglican Church Norway in Toronto. About four years ago, he says, his burgeoning interest in beekeeping dovetailed with the church’s desire to find programs that could include kids and young people. Since then, Park has been maintaining between two and four hives per year on the church’s property.

“On the…west side of the church, there’s an old pathway that basically goes to nowhere anymore, and it’s fenced off, so it’s a really nice protected area,” says Park. With the beehives placed there, the bees have free rein to forage and pollinate over the church’s 35-acre cemetery.

Urban beekeeping involves much the same process as beekeeping in a rural area, Park says, though it is important to watch for swarms.

“Toronto is great, because we have a lot of greenery around the city. We think of bees going flower to flower, but in fact the majority of honeybees do their work up in the trees, because that’s where the pollen and the nectar [are]—there’s just a lot more available to them up in the trees,” he says.

The hives have been a great way to involve the church’s youth group and Sunday school, Park says. Last year, the youth group helped extract honey from the hives. The 80 pounds of honey the group extracted and bottled were sold at the church’s Christmas bake sale, raising around $350 and helping to fund a youth-run Out of the Cold dinner event and some fun group activities like rock climbing.

This year, Park says the Sunday school kids will make candles with the beeswax from the hives and help garden in a raised bed recently built in the cemetery. “We’ll…teach them about growing vegetables and pollination, sustainable food practices, that sort of thing.”

Park has also had to deal with challenges like adverse weather and mites. “That’s just part of the learning experience, and just through trial and error, I’ve lost colonies as well, in part to mites, disease—and then also we’ve had some bad winters where I’ve lost whole colonies just because of the weather,” he says.

“It’s really heartbreaking. You get really attached to them. I check the hives about every seven to 10 days, just go in there and make sure everything’s good. It’s really heartbreaking when you find your colony in early December [has] just completely died out, and it looked so healthy going into the winter—you know it’s probably because of the mites.”

Park, who is also a photographer and takes macro photographs of his bees, is drawn in by the complexity of nature. “There’s something so complex here that’s been created and has just maintained itself for really millions of years—they’ve been around as far back as the dinosaurs.

“It’s been really neat to see the connection the bees have had with our church community,” he adds. “It’s really brought people out and gotten them interested in the program, and [appreciating] nature.”

“To make a prairie it takes a clover and a bee
One clover, and a bee.
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.”

Emily Dickenson

Not everyone is able to start their own bee colony. But for those concerned with the plight of pollinators, one way to help bees, flies and butterflies flourish is to create places for them to nest and, of course, pollinate. Bee-friendly gardens have thus become a popular way for anyone with a little green space to help.

Few know this better than Murray Hunter, an Anglican in London, Ont., whose philanthropic work is all about getting his hands dirty (literally).

“I did some research. I had what you’d call a sample garden, a prototype, for three years at a public allotment garden where I tried to see what plants would live without a lot of watering, that could stand up to weeds, and that would actually attract the bees,” Hunter explains. He kept bee counts and notes of what varieties of plants and colours of flowers most attracted pollinators.

This trial and error gardening was in service of Gardens4Bees, an initiative of Hunter’s charity, the Julia Hunter Fund.

“Our fund…is always looking for useful ways to contribute to people and the environment,” says Hunter. “It became clear, perhaps about five or six years ago, that bees in particular were in trouble, and there was public attention on that. And we thought, now there’s an area where we can make a contribution.”

The fund has always focused on gardening projects. “I knew I wanted to do something in my daughter’s name, and the [London] Community Foundation advised me to take a very specific focus, that that would really help me in the long run, and I think that was true,” Hunter explains. “Gardens—my daughter and I always had a garden…. I thought it would be something positive and cheerful and community-oriented.”

Hunter started the Julia Hunter Fund in 2005, in memory of his daughter, who was killed in a car accident when hit by a drunk driver. The fund’s impact is a testament to Murray Hunter’s character, says Diane Silva, director of donor relations for the London Community Foundation, which manages the fund.

“The Julia Hunter Fund…was clearly a healing opportunity for him. He was working with MADD [Mothers Against Drunk Driving] and was also in contact with the girl who tragically, unfortunately, killed his daughter through the accident…. One of the first initiatives [of the fund] was to plant a tree at a halfway house [for] people who are incarcerated for whatever reason, to rehabilitate them and reintegrate them back into society. So they planted a tree, and for him, forgiveness was basically allowing this person to heal and have a good life again, to have a second chance,” Silva says.

As Hunter began to think about Gardens4Bees, he realized he would need to find a group able to take on the task of maintaining a garden. “Gardens require people and the environment working together. You can’t simply plant something and it turns into a garden,” he says. “We found, in our donations previously, that it’s important that we give to a group, first of all, that has volunteers that can work and also that controls their own land.”

It occurred to him that churches were a natural fit. “You’ve got a congregation, you’ve got a piece of land, and also a mission.” He began reaching out to churches in the London area.

One of these churches was St. Luke’s Worshipping Community—then called St. Luke the Evangelist, Broughdale—which is surrounded by the University of Western Ontario. The church also runs Luke’s Place, a ministry to the 18- to 30-year-old population of mostly students in the surrounding neighbourhood.

“We had done some work on the building itself, and put a new entrance [in] to make it accessible. Once that entrance was in, it presented this area where we could put a large garden,” says the Rev. Adèle Miles, priest at St. Luke’s. The garden would be a good way to make their space inviting for the church’s neighbours and care for creation, the church thought.

In 2015, Hunter contacted the church about making their garden bee-friendly. “He said, ‘Well, it’s pretty good what you have, but you could do a lot better—these are some of the things you can do,’” recalls Miles. The Julia Hunter Fund provided some money to revamp the garden with more pollinator-friendly plants. “And when we were done…it turns out we had an award-winning garden,” Miles says with a laugh. The church received the Judge’s Choice award at Gardens4Bees’ Bee Fest 2015.

The garden is now a leafy pollinator paradise, with bee-friendly plants like echinacea and thyme. “Actually, we had a bit of fun with it—we used a Biblical theme,” says Miles. Among the 51 varieties of plants in the garden are St. John’s wort, Jacob’s ladder, Solomon’s seal, praying hands hosta, burning bush and lemon balm—a reference to the “balm of Gilead.”

There are also two benches placed among the plants. The aim, Miles says, was to create an “oasis in the city.”

The church is surrounded by student housing, says Miles, most of which has no space for students to plant their own gardens. “We see people enjoying the garden, just using it as a place to reflect quietly…even if they’re just cutting through the property—sometimes I think they do that just so they can go through the garden.”

Visitors who come to the church for its monthly hospitality meal—a free breakfast offered in partnership with the Middlesex London Health Unit—often spend time sitting in the garden, she says. “I think that those kinds of impacts are hard to measure, but in addition to caring for creation and caring for the bees, we’re caring for our neighbours who may not have the luxury of the resources to have a garden for themselves.”

The church also hosts a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) camp for kids during the summer, which has used the garden as an educational tool. “They’ve found little voles in there, they’ve identified different kinds of bees and different caterpillars. They’ve used it as their outdoor laboratory.”

There is also a “bee motel”—a panel of small tubes that hold solitary bees that tunnel to nest—and a honeycrisp apple tree given to the church as part of an interfaith tree planting initiative. “That draws bees to it too, so the tree draws bees to the garden, and the garden draws bees to the apple tree,” says Miles.

“Part of the purpose of these gardens is educational…we want to let people know about what we’re doing and the impact it can have on creation,” she says.

At St. Anne’s Byron Anglican Church, a Gardens4Bees garden was planted last June.

“I can recall we were all out there in last spring’s late snowfall, trying to figure out where the garden was going to be,” says Hunter, who helped design it. They chose to keep a limited number of plants, making the garden much easier to weed. “It looks very rich without being a lot of trouble. Our aim is always to make something low-maintenance as much as possible, and well-maintained,” says Hunter.

The garden is circular, with a circumference of 25 feet. Four stone paths cut through the garden, meeting in the middle, made of stone chosen “to coordinate with the beautiful stone of St. Anne’s,” says Lorna Fratschko. Fratschko is a parishioner and a member of the three-person committee who helped bring the garden to life.

The project appealed to her as a gardener and as someone who wanted to “contribute to God’s world and help support our pollinators.”

However, the community outreach provided by the garden has also been a pleasant surprise, she says. “We have two benches at the garden, and people walking by…love to look at that garden.” She adds, “When you’re working in the garden, whoever is walking by wants to stop and talk, for some reason.”

“I think it’s a very important thing for us to do, to green our spaces in whatever way we can,” says Miles. “I think whenever we encourage and tend creation, we’re doing the right thing. It’s not just about the bees—it’s about providing a garden for people to feel closer to God, a garden for people to find a Sabbath moment. A garden for people to just breathe more easily.”

According to Hunter, there are now more than 30 Gardens4Bees in the community. In addition to churches, a local legal firm and Growing Chefs, a non-profit urban agriculture project that serves children in the area, have started pollinator gardens with the help of the fund.

Hunter has “driven such awareness to the causes of pollinator gardens, and the fact that we need to return back to these beautiful spaces,” says Silva. Gardens4Bees has also sparked donor interest, she adds. “He’s not all on his own doing this, he’s got people who want to contribute to his fund because they believe in his cause and they believe in the work that he’s doing.”

His vision has had a “ripple effect,” says Silva. “It’s contagious.”

The gardens have “helped bring people together,” says Peggy Sattler, NDP MPP for London West. “I think that it is wonderful…. It has helped raise community awareness of the importance of environmental stewardship and the value of ecological and environmental initiatives in building community.”

Sattler first heard of Gardens4Bees shortly after she was elected in 2013, when she was invited to attend a recognition event for the Anglican churches who planted the first pollinator gardens for the project.

In addition to helping the environment, Gardens4Bees is “a model of how people can honour and remember a loved one that they have lost,” she adds. “This project…will allow Julia’s memory to live on for years while it is creating beautiful public spaces for Londoners to enjoy.”

Liberal MP for London North Centre Peter Fragiskatos also says he’s seen great community impact through Gardens4Bees. Fragiskatos has known Hunter for years, he says, and finds his work with the Julia Hunter Fund “incredibly inspiring.”

“He has endured the worst of personal tragedies, and yet has found a way to channel his grief into this form of advocacy. And not only is he honouring his daughter as a result, but I think he’s also sending out a profound message to our wider community about the fact that our environment matters, and we have to pay attention to things we’ve taken for granted in the past,” says Fragiskatos.

Some, on the trail of these clues and examples,
Have said that the bees have a share in the divine mind, and have drunk
Of the substance of heaven; for God, they say, runs through
Every land and the sea’s expanse and the soaring sky.

Virgil, Georgics (translation Tali Folkins)

Reversing the damage done to pollinator species will take action on both the personal and political level, Scharper says—both through grassroots projects like pollinator-friendly gardens and by outlawing and restricting harmful pesticides like neonicotinoids.

As Anglicans are proving, churches can be a source of sanctuary for some of the environment’s most at-risk insect species.

Scharper often takes his students at the University of Toronto up to the roof of the tower of Trinity College, which houses apiaries run by the university’s Beekeeping Education Enthusiast Society (B.E.E.S.).

“It’s beautiful honey,” he adds. The bees buzz around the campus during the day, pollinating the flowers at nearby Queen’s Park and Philosopher’s Walk. “It’s so sweet. It’s a gentle sweetness.”

On April 15, 2019, thousands of people in Paris—and around the world, via video—watched as the city’s historic Notre-Dame cathedral was wrapped in flames. Belching dark smoke into the clear sky, the fire consumed the ancient church’s wooden roof, ultimately causing its spire to buckle and fall.

While many watching the fire feared for the historic architecture and relics inside the church, Nicolas Géant had another worry: the bees.

The fire at Notre-Dame de Paris raised immediate concerns among apiarists: what of the bees? Photo: Loic Salan/Shutterstock

Paris has become an urban beekeeping mecca in the past decade, with hundreds of hives installed on the rooftops of the city’s oldest and most famous buildings: The Opéra Garnier, Musée d’Orsay, the Grand Palais and more. Since 2013, Notre-Dame’s roof has been host to a collection of hives tended by Géant, the cathedral’s apiarist. In total, more than 180,000 bees live in the hives.

The Thursday following the fire, the French urban beekeeping company Biopic Apiculture confirmed the bees were alive with a post to their Instagram page. In the photo, a cluster of honey bees huddle on the outstretched neck of a gargoyle, a golden smear amongst the ridges of stone.

The bees had made it through the destruction. The fire hadn’t reached the sacristy, 30 metres below the main roof, where the hives are kept, and the smoke, which is commonly used by beekeepers to sedate the insects, had simply put them to sleep.

“It is a miracle,” Géant told CNN. The bees were alive, sheltered by the enduring nooks of a centuries-old church.


Cover photo: The Rev. Sheilagh Ashworth holds out a frame filled with bees from one of her hive boxes. Photo: Saskia Rowley


  • Joelle Kidd

    Joelle Kidd was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2017 to 2021.

Related Posts


Skip to content