An Unexpected Ministry
By S. Mary Ann Flannery
One spring morning, five years ago, S. Helen Therese Scasny made an announcement at breakfast.
“I’m going to become a beekeeper.”
We were incredulous. “That’s a lot of work, Helen.”
“I know but I met a man at Light of Hearts Villa [senior residential living services in Bedford, Ohio] who was telling me how wonderful it is to raise bees. And, I have read that bees are on the decline and this is catastrophic for the environment. I can do my part to help.”
And so she started. Ross Oriti, the Mr. Beekeeper she had met, began teaching S. Helen the rudiments of beekeeping. Ross was a certified beekeeper and so knowledgeable on beekeeping that The Ohio State University regularly consulted him and even sent students to learn what they could of his vast experience. Ross was retiring from the business of beekeeping since his advanced age and challenging health issues presented problems in keeping up with the project.
Ross donated his supplies and equipment to S. Helen and spent the summer training her on the skills required to set up and execute the industry of beekeeping.
A fellow beekeeper in town, Jim Hensley, learned of S. Helen’s initiative and the two have joined efforts in helping with each other’s hives and honey production. Every warm spring and summer day, S. Helen and Jim don their protective suits and work on her four hives checking for production, providing water, taking note of any concerns they might have to resolve.
“Bees are industrious and clever,” says S. Helen, “they usually solve their own problems.” In bee literature a story is told that a lumber business caught fire and raged toward a nearby bee farm overtaking the bee hives’ wooden exteriors. But the bees survived. They had insulated themselves with honey and fanned the interior with their wings preserving the infrastructure of the hives and the bees themselves. She will recount for you many of the stories of the bee hierarchy that governs each community, the sovereign rule of the queen, the guards at the gate, the drone and workers, all networked to create a profitable, peaceful community. Sometimes her narrative sounds like a true medieval tale.
S. Helen and Jim usually harvest honey in early summer and late fall, at the beginning of floral blooms and the end when they begin to fade. Neighbors have reported that they love the easy access the bees have to their flower gardens increasing the beauty and health of the flowers. S. Helen has urged neighbors not to use pesticides and it has worked. The hives are surrounded outside the walls of our barn and garage making it less possible for the cruel Northeast Ohio winters to cause damage. Our location is helpful as well; we are only 1,000 feet from Tinker’s Creek, a tributary to the Cuyahoga River. We are adjacent to the Metro Park System with its bountiful fruit and wildflower plants.
Harvesting the honey is a major project. Once it is removed from the combs of the hives, it is placed in a large extractor to sift debris and impurities such as wax, pollen, propolis and even bee wings and legs! This process takes place in the barn where jars are arranged to capture the honey for eventual selling. In addition to the honey, S. Helen has created wax items for sale and small gifts. People like small wax bars to rub on drawers for easy opening and small wax candles which burn slower than commercial ones. “I used to notice when I was a sacristan, that 100 percent beeswax candles, required by liturgical regulations at that time, burned slower and their holders were easier to clean than what is used now,” she adds.
Sales from the honey take place at Light of Hearts Villa or at various venues where S. Helen is asked to speak on beekeeping. Proceeds go to the Villa for the Benevolent Fund which assists residents who have run out of money to continue their care. “I like the idea that no one is turned away for lack of funds,” says S. Helen. A modest amount is kept for replenishment of supplies. From June 2017 to January 2018, the sale of honey brought in around $2,000, selling out completely at the end of the year.
The lives of bees are constant sources of intrigue for writers like Sue Monk Kidd and Laline Pull, to name only two. Dissertations have been written on the bee imagery so prolific in the poetry of Emily Dickinson. But for S. Helen, at age 85, the message is simple: “I respect what my bees can teach me. They are among the guardians of the environment and I love learning from them every day. They are remarkable creatures of God and I love telling people that.”
As a visitor timidly approaches the hives to observe the work in progress, a line from Dickinson’s poem, “The Bumble of a Bee,” seems appropriate: “If anybody sneer, Take care—for God is here—”.