Story by S.L. Hansen
LINCOLN (SNR) - Last May, Bishop James D. Conley took advantage of his back yard in central Lincoln to return to a beloved hobby: beekeeping.
The bishop first became interested in honeybees during his last year at the University of Kansas. A course called “The Hive and the Honeybee” opened his eyes to the beauty of this part of God’s creation.
“Bees are fascinating creatures,” Bishop Conley said, launching enthusiastically into a description of how bees maintain a hive culture centered around the queen and use dance to direct each other to sources of nectar.
“Not only do they produce this wonderful honey for us, more importantly, they pollinate our crops,” he added.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, roughly $30 billion in agriculture depends on pollination by honeybees.
“I am fascinated at how God could create this wonderful creature, this insect, to serve man,” Bishop Conley said.
He also noted that honey and honeybees play an integral part in our culture, literature and even Scripture.
Plus, bees have a role in the Easter Liturgy. Pure beeswax candles are used to represent Christ as the Light of the World, and the Paschal Proclamation at Easter Vigil references them with the words, “…O holy Father, accept this candle, a solemn offering, the work of bees and of your servant’s hands…”
Shortly after college, Bishop Conley went to work for a friend of his who had inherited a family farm near Courtland, Kan. There, he was able to start keeping bees.
When God called him to seminary, however, he obviously couldn’t take his hives with him. In fact, his appointment to Lincoln was the first opportunity he’s had to keep bees since then.
During a casual conversation with Celeste Fortenberry, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Lincoln, Bishop Conley discovered that she had a couple of hives.
“I started keeping bees in April of 2010,” Mrs. Fortenberry said.
Despite her fear of stinging insects and abhorrence for anything sticky, Mrs. Fortenberry became intrigued by the idea of beekeeping when a college friend mentioned her dad kept bees.
She filed the idea away for the future, until the Nebraska Extension Office offered a $20 course in beekeeping, including hands-on training and a potluck meal.
“‘Someday’ finally arrived!” Mrs. Fortenberry said.
She now has two hives (which she is currently attempting to combine since one has lost its queen). When she learned of the bishop’s interest in restarting this hobby, she offered to help. Last spring, she provided him with an old, unused hive, consisting of boxes with frames to hold honeycomb, and she ordered him a colony of Italian bees and a queen.
When it came time to set it up, however, “He did all the work,” she said.
However, with the bishop’s travel schedule, Mrs. Fortenberry has frequently stepped in to tend to his hive and send progress reports.
Her choice in bees was apparently a good one, because the bishop reported that it was a particularly industrious colony.
“They got to work quickly,” he said.
A bee colony needs to establish the hive by building combs to serve as the queen’s nursery (she will lay sometimes 1,000 eggs a day) and food storage. When these become full, an additional box with frames called a ‘super’ can be added on top of the hive to receive more honey.
Bishop Conley was able to add a super in July and then another in August, which is somewhat remarkable for a first-year hive.
Meanwhile, Dr. Terrence Nollen, librarian and instructor at St. Gregory the Great Seminary in Seward, also started keeping bees this spring.
“I took a course at Southeast Community College eight months before the current season,” Dr. Nollen said.
He set up two hives in the orchard on the seminary grounds, where his bees would have plenty of access to clover, fruit trees, and other sources of nectar.
Dr. Nollen has also helped the bishop, especially with winterizing the hive and harvesting honey (since he has invested in his own honey extractor). He helped the bishop harvest 10 16-ounce jars of honey.
He said each is filled with particularly clear, light amber honey that boasts excellent flavor.
“It’s absolutely delicious,” Dr. Nollen said with only the smallest tinge of envy. “My honey is really good too, but his bees get everything – tulips and apple blossoms and iris and bridal wreath....”
“I was very pleased,” Bishop Conley said, “I am probably going to add another hive next year.”
He plans to give his honey away. The retired priests at Bonacum House have already been treated to a jar, for example.
“I’m going to donate them for silent auctions and various charity causes,” the bishop announced.
To do that, of course, he needed a good name and a nicely designed label. He enlisted the help of various people to help him think of a catchy name.
Cathy Bender, composition editor for the Southern Nebraska Register, came up with the winning suggestion, “Ordinary Honey,” as a bishop is the ‘ordinary’ of his diocese. She also designed a label for the bishop’s honey jars that features Psalm 119:103: “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”
Bishop Conley is looking forward to many more years of enjoying his hobby.
“Bees show us the beauty of God’s creation,” he said. “They are really put on earth for our delight.”
More photos are available in the Register’s online photo gallery.