While roaming the Redemptorist Retreat Center’s 20 acres of natural woodlands, the only sounds injecting themselves into the silence are those of nature. Listen closely, and the hum of honeybees busy at work may draw even the most unnerved a bit closer.
Several hives in a corner of this Oconomowoc haven contain thousands of bees. They fly out; they fly in, collecting pollen from the sweet smelling flowers on columbine, lilies and other wild flowers that line the property.
Affectionately known as Brother Beekeeper, 62-year-old Redemptorist Br. Gerry Patin, director of the Redemptorist Retreat Center, lovingly tends his bees.
Each of his 14 hives contains between 50,000 to 60,000 bees during the honey flow season, and can weigh more than 100 pounds by the end of summer. Each colony has a queen, tens of thousands of workers who make the honey and hundreds of drones who mate with the queen, then die; to that, add the weight of the comb with eggs, brood and larvae, pollen stores and honey. In general, beekeeping is easy and fun, according to Br. Gerry, and while considered a hobby, it was one he entered into unexpectedly early in his religious life.
“It was 1969 when stationed at our high school seminary in Edgerton, Wis.,” he explained. “The brother taking care of the bees was transferred and I was asked if I would be interested in taking over the 10 bee hives that were at that facility. I responded, ‘absolutely.’”
After a crash course in learning about beekeeping, the brother gave him an instruction book on the subject. Quickly reading anything he could get his hands on, he found the beekeeping to be not only calming and enjoyable, but a great success.
“Eventually, we closed our high school seminary and I sold all of the bee equipment, along with the hives,” Br. Gerry said. “I was transferred to Holy Redeemer Parish in Detroit for the next 17 years.”
In 2003, Br. Gerry was transferred back to Wisconsin to direct the Oconomowoc facility. To his surprise and delight, his love for beekeeping would once again become part of his life.
“In 2005, with the encouragement from a man that attended our retreats, and was also a beekeeper, I once again began the project of beekeeping,” he said. “I started out small with three hives, and gradually increased them to the 14 I now tend.”
Br. Gerry began selling the honey to help support the center, and as he witnessed the great interest in purchasing the golden syrup from those coming on retreat, he began thinking of other ways to utilize the honey and beeswax for additional revenue.
“I receive a monthly beekeeping magazine and in it there have been frequent articles on using the products from the hives for soap making and also making lip balm,” he said. “I began that hobby, and the all natural soap and lip balm I make are also in great demand in our gift shop at the retreat center. People love the natural soap with the natural glycerin in each bar. People with skin problems using store-bought soap tell me that their skin responds beautifully to my soap. People coming to the Redemptorist Retreat Center are so happy to be able to buy these products as gifts that are really made right at the retreat house by Brother Beekeeper.”
Honeybees are lumped in with other stinging creatures that invade late summer picnics and other outdoor activities, but they have been given a bad rap insists Br. Gerry.
“I enjoy the beekeeping because the honeybee is often overlooked in today’s busy world. The amount of good that the honeybees do is more far reaching than just the honey they provide,” he said. “Many fruits and vegetables require the pollination that only the honeybees can provide. The bees work in perfect communal harmony. It is rather spiritual to work with them throughout the spring and summer months – they actually teach me a lot.”
One of the more commonly asked questions surrounds the honeybee stinger and how often Br. Gerry irritates his brood enough to warrant a sting.
“I do get stung, but usually it is my own fault,” he explained. “I’m sometimes in a hurry to vest in my beekeeping suit and have left open a zipper or snap and in come the bees to remind me that I left an opening for them in my carelessness. The stings hurt, but soon the pain leaves and I forget that I was even stung.”
While the hobby might seem to be a full-time job to those unaccustomed to the process, the bees do most of the work. For Br. Gerry, one day a week is usually sufficient to keep track of his hives and the health of his bees, and to tend their needs during all seasons.
As a Redemptorist brother for 43 years, Br. Gerry finds it interesting that he got into beekeeping early in his religious life and now later in his religious life.
“The bees treat me well, even though I am a more senior presence with them at this time in my life,” he said, adding. “People who have made retreats and friends of the retreat center sometimes come out and I suit them up and show them the inside workings of a beehive. It is an opportunity that doesn’t come along too often in today’s busy world.”
As a retreat director, Br. Gerry is often asked whether he will ever provide a retreat on the life of the honeybees and the spiritual connection they seem to share with us in this vast world.
“I just reply, ‘Stay tuned,’” he said.
Brother Beekeeper creates buzz at retreat center
Written by Karen Mahoney,
Special to your Catholic Herald
Thursday, 01 September 2011 11:58