Video: Abuzz about bees

More and more Episcopalians are getting into a honey of a business

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Aug 29, 2016

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a continuing series about Episcopal Church congregations that are involved in community agriculture. Other stories in the series can be found here.

[Episcopal News Service – Seattle, Washington] They are just two three-part boxes on the roof of St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, but thanks to their 40,000 occupants, they are beginning to house sweet combs of honey that will help expand a growing beekeeping movement in the Episcopal Church.

Not only does the apiaries movement yield both revenue for ministry and examples of stewardship of creation, beekeeping is also in tune with the traditional use of bees and their hives as symbols for Christians and the church because of their selfless community labor. For example, St. John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople in the late fourth century, praised the bee, saying, “The bee is more honored than other animals, not because she labors, but because she labors for others.”

The Seattle cathedral’s bees took up residence in late May and were blessed July 12 by Diocese of Olympia Bishop Greg Rickel. They are the latest addition to the cathedral campus’ growing gardening efforts on its slice of creation atop the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. The honey they produce will be sold and the money used to buy more hives. Eventually, said cathedral member and beekeeper Brian Sellers-Petersen, any extra money could fund beekeeping projects elsewhere.

St. Mark’s apiary is part of an increasing number of hives being maintained by Episcopal Church congregations and institutions. Among the varied locations are Virginia Theological Seminary, Bluestone Farm in upstate New York, St. John’s Cathedral in Denver, Colorado  (with 400,000 bees on its roof making beeswax for candles and honey), the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York and Thistle and Bee Enterprises in Memphis, Tennessee. Apiarists also keep bees at Manchester Cathedral in England and at Notre Dame in Paris.

The United Thank Offering recently gave Navajoland Area Mission a $41,500 grant for projects that include “Bees Bring Hózhó to Navajoland.” Not only will the bees bring hózhó’s qualities of peace, balance, beauty and harmony, but with 40 hives housing 20,000 bees each in and around Good Shepherd Mission, Fort Defiance, Arizona; St. Christopher’s Episcopal Mission, Bluff, Utah; and San Juan Mission, Farmington, New Mexico, the project will be a commercial venture in beekeeping, according to Sellers-Petersen.

Sellers-Petersen, senior adviser to the president of Episcopal Relief & Development and a champion of church-community agriculture, is a budding beekeeper and the impetus for installing hives at the cathedral. The work of keeping bees, he said, is one way to be a steward of creation by making a small contribution to increasing the declining number of these essential pollinators across the world.


Petersen helps run the Episcopal Beekeepers Facebook page ( where people interested in beekeeping can connect.

The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.




Comments (14)

  1. Dan Houston says:

    We also have an apiary at St. Peter’s Church in the Great Valley in Malvern, PA. It’s wonderful to read all about the other churches who keep bees!

    1. Brian Sellers-Petersen says:

      You also have sheep, right?

      1. Dan Houston says:

        We do! They have been taking care of the grass around our historic headstones for more than ten years now.

  2. Joe Parrish says:

    One of our churches’ members was stung over eighty times recently by his long standing bee hive that suddenly became agitated. He is still recovering. If a professional has such a problem, I pray that the churches and cathedrals that are doing this experiment are aware that there can be danger.

    1. Mark Friesland says:

      I carry an EpiPen. Just one bee sting could be lethal to me. I can’t be the only person in a given crowd (like a church) who can be killed by a single bee sting (via anaphylactic shock). The people I know who are beekeepers still wear a body suit covering their entire body; they wear gloves and a facial screen. They keep their hives in rural, isolated areas, not on top of inner city buildings. These beekeepers use bee smokers, too. There are venomous “guard bees” in every hive that can signal and warn other bees -chemically- of an potential hive attack. The bee smoker blocks the chemical warning system and the smoke seems to sedate the bees. There is no such thing as a “safe hive” or a bee that isn’t “aggressive by nature.” Africanized honey bees can attack without being provoked and can pursue a target for miles. These killer bees produce honey, but it isn’t worth the risk of a horrrible attack. If there is beekeeping on church grounds, I recommend that such a parish take out additional liability insurance and make certain that all people in a congregation are alerted to of the presence of bees and their hives on church property. Keeping bees on church buildings is unwise.

  3. John Burruss says:

    We have apiaries at Church of the Annunciation in Cordova, Tennessee and at St. Columba Conference Center in Memphis. They have been a wonderful way to engage the congregation and the diocese in a conversation on the environment, agriculture, and food. While I have been stung when installing new hives, and we have had a few stings by the parishioners who have been caring for the bees and going into the hives, we have had no problems with people on church property. The bees have brought much joy to both places. We have also informed our insurance company. Bees are found naturally in almost all settings, even church buildings. One of our hives was living in a downtown church in the walls and was professionally removed and relocated to a suburban church where the bees could be carried for and domesticated.

  4. As the Vicar of St. Peter’s in Lebanon, Indiana, I would have to say that our honeybee ministry has been an extreme blessing on the revitalization of our parish within the community. We are blessed with nearly 8 acres of land and I would say that any parish endeavoring to do this ministry should have a community forum about it. We did that here at St. Peter’s and kept people informed along the process and that has worked extremely well.

    We also bought enough suits and veils in all sizes so that those who want to go out to the hives have the option to do so. We also have a supply of epi-pens and those taking individuals out to the hives and/or into the corral have been trained on first aid and CPR certified. We built a 10 x 20 foot locked corral around ours to keep wild animals and others safely away from the hives. One of the interesting things we have noticed is that the flight patterns of the bees we raise are now instinctive trained to fly out of the hive and straight up over the 8 foot high fence so that even when people walk out to observe the hives they are not in the flight path of the bees.

    For our parish, many of our members will spend this weekend extracting honey and bottling it for distribution. We regularly do tour groups out to the hives for those in the community and are in the process of renovating space for an educational classroom with an observation hive and associated materials. We are a small family size congregation that went six years without clergy before my arrival but the engagement with the community has been great. As a suburban parish, there are less and less opportunity for our youth to connect with nature and learn about being good stewards of creation and the land we have been blessed with. When our neighbors learned that the bees will help pollinate their gardens and crops they were more than enthusiastic to ask how they could help.

    Have I gotten stung? Of course, but usually it is because of a careless mistake I have made by not wearing gloves or a veil. I also think that another important factor is the type of bees you get. We purchase our bees from a commercial beekeeper. Our hives have grown through natural splits. It is my opinion that these tend to be a more docile set of honeybees. When we have a couple of swarms on the property, we have let professional beekeepers in our area come and capture those swarms as they are better trained to care for them. We have gone to local queen rearing schools and one of our members is pursuing a Masters in Beekeeping through the University of Montana so that we can better educate our members and the community about the necessity of honeybees to our ecosystem as well as help to ensure healthy populations of bees.

    I could go on and on, but I think the main thing to note is that for churches considering this ministry, do your homework, educate the parish, and be prepared to spend a little money to ensure a quality experience for your parishioners and community.

  5. Steve Thomason says:

    As Dean of St. Mark’s Cathedral, I’m so delighted with this new ministry. It’s not about the honey as much as it is about environmental stewardship knowing that our food supply collapses without bee pollinators with whom we’ve cohabited for millennia. In an urban setting like ours, the bees were already here on campus, traveling from nearby hives, and we have taken care to sequester the hives on the rooftop with a viewing window for those interested. Thanks to ENS for reporting on such efforts in which the church is reclaiming a voice in environmental sustainability.

    1. Mark Friesland says:

      Always good to have EpiPens available. Sadly, EpiPens now are selling for $600 per pen (previously priced at $100 per pen). Buying four of these pens will cost $2400, but they are essential.

  6. St Michael’s (Lansing, Michigan) also has a burgeoning bee-keeping ministry. We are an urban church surrounded by “big box” retailers, fast-food joints and banks. The bees, along with our community garden, serve as visible symbols of our charism of being “the green jewel in the midst of the concrete jungle.”

    The hives serve as an entree into engaging with our neighbors. We placed the hives strategically in conjunction with the next neighbor property of Menard’s to reduce the possibility of accidental, and unintentional, contact with the public . We educate our community gardeners about how the bees pollenate our gardens. We teach safety to the community kids about bees. And we always offer a taste of honey to anyone who asks. Finally, we make our gluten-free communion bread with the honey. Bee-keeping seems to be right in line with our mission “to nourish God’s people that Christ may be known.” Literally, in the baking (and eating) of the body of Christ!

  7. Ashley Goff says:

    We have bees at Church of the Pilgrims–PCUSA–in Washington, D.C.!

    Last year we were up to 4 hives but the winter killed off our bees. My bee “dealer” in Northern Virginia ran out of bees before I could place an order so we are bee-less this year and our urban garden feels a little incomplete.

    Looking forward to next year and welcoming bees back to our urban garden. Love that there is a beekeeper group like this!

    Ashley Goff

    1. Mary Frances Schjonberg says:

      Editor’s note: Ashley Goff is the author of “Beekeeping: Introducing Beekeeping to Congregational Life,” which can be found here

      1. Ashley Goff says:

        Thanks! The Church Health Reader is a great resource for all things related to health and congregational life.

  8. We have bee hives at St. James School Philadelphia. This is an Episcopal middle school in an under-resourced part of the city. We have chickens and eggs, and vegetable and flower gardens. Students can choose to be in these ‘clubs’.

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