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What Mother Joanna finds most enjoyable and instructive in beekeeping

Discovering the joys of beekeeping


Beekeeping is a common monastic occupation. Saint Elisabeth Convent is not an exception:  it has a bee yard at its farmstead at Lysaya Gora Village about a dozen kilometres outside Minsk. The bee yard is the responsibility of Nun Joanna Orlova. We interview her about the details of her obedience.

Is beekeeping an easy trade to master? How did you pick it up?

A bee yard had existed at our farmstead for many years. Some older people were running it when our spiritual father, Andrey Lemeshonok, gave me the blessing to take it over. God sent me several helpers. Bee-keeping is an art, but one can learn it quickly. Extensive information is available from books and the Net, and I could always consult with more experienced beekeepers.


I heard that beekeepers are always busy. Someone told me that bees go to sleep in winter, but the beekeeper keeps working as before. Is that true? What does a bee keeper's year look like?

In spring, we plant the fields around the bee yard with honey plants. Sweet clover, desert bluebells, bird's foot, globe thistle and nepeta are some of the more common species. There is also a large number of old limes and raspberry bushes. Our honey plants add unique hues to the taste of our honey. People like it.

Bird's foot is our first honey plant of the year, and we always wait impatiently for it to blossom.


But when the blossoming of the honey plants stops in late autumn, beekeepers start preparing their bees for the winter. They feed them, give them medicines and rearrange the nests in the hives if needed. Some bee yards have winter shelters, and beekeepers will put the hives in there to protect them from the wind. We do not move our bees elsewhere to hibernate, we simply cover them with a winding cloth. Afterwards, we begin to harvest the bee bread. We extract it carefully from the bees' cells and put it out to dry.

In winter, a bee-keeper catches up on all the work left undone during the year - tightening up the frames, taking out the empty honeycombs, extracting the wax, scraping off the bee glue, mending and disinfecting the hives, among many other jobs. Bees give many useful products, not just honey.


Bees are nice to have, I agree, but there is a huge disadvantage to them: they bite! How do you keep peace with them?

Bees are very smart. Their intellect matches that of many vertebrates. They find their way on the terrain in multiple ways, and they have excellent vision. For example, bees tell their hives and feeders by the lightest hues of colour and variations in shape. They remember landmarks and give directions to others in dance. They can also communicate with smell and barely intelligible sounds.


Their diverse ways of communicating and determining their location are amazing and distinguish them from many other living beings. Non-aggressiveness is a key attribute by which breeders select the bees. Last August, we changed the breeds of the mother bees for the less aggressive ones, and there is a lot more peace now than there was before. We used to have a mixed breed. And did they misbehave! We always checked our gear and changed into new clothes when we left the bee yard, but every so often, some bee who would stay behind and bite us. Some followed us in our car and would not rest until they bit someone. But there was a good side to it - we saved a fortune on security guards (smiles)!


Can we learn anything useful from watching bees?

The more you know bees, the more you love them. They become a part of your life. What do I like about bees? Their fighting spirit, perhaps: they always stick up for themselves and others. When I take their honey, I cannot help feeling sympathetic for the bees: they had worked so hard to bring it. And they defend their catch with vigour. They could bite you to death if you were not wearing the proper gear. -


In a way, a beehive is like a convent. The Hegumeness is in charge of a convent, and the mother bee directs a hive. Everyone is in obedience to the Hegumeness of a convent, and in a beehive everyone obeys the mother bee. Everyone has a job at a convent, and likewise in a beehive. Every bee family will have its cleaners, nurses, guards and scouts.


But perhaps the most valuable thing one finds in a bee yard is the sense of closeness to God, the blessing of doing a job one likes and sharing one's joy with others.

May 20, 2022
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