Blog #20: Bee Careful!

May 27, 2021 
Monika Weber-Fahr & Charlotte Wiggins
World Bee Day was a week ago today, and so for this week’s LivingLight blog, we dug a little deeper into the lives of bees in Vienna, Austria, and the world, and into what they mean for people of faith. So, if you enjoy honey, like burning a candle, or are curious about what the little black-and-yellow fellows may mean for us as a congregation and for caring for God’s creation, check out the paragraphs below.

Honeybees are a busy lot - and when you look around, you can find them at work here in Vienna and in the surroundings. The bees on this picture belong to one of my own hives.  From what I know, we have at least two beekeepers in the Christ Church Community.   
Bees, the honey they produce, and the beekeepers that look after them, have long been part of religious lives. Bees even played a role in ancient mythologies, including in Hindu thinking and in Aegean and Near East Cultures, as a sacred insect and symbol of love and spring.  Already known as food for the Gods in ancient Egypt, honey has been harvested since about 10,000 BC and remained, certainly in Europe, the most significant sweetener for foods until the late medieval years when sugarcane was introduced from the East Indies in the 19th century, complemented at scale by sugar beets. The bible includes multiple references to bees, honey and related products, often in the context of longish walks in desert spaces. In the middle ages, monasteries across Europe became centres for beekeeping, mostly because bees helped generate highly prized wax that was necessary for the all-important candle. Across the Latin American Continent, bees were also a focus for priestly attention, documented through the Madrid Codex, a pre-Columbian Maya book dating back to the 15th century, meant to help Maya priests in their tasks; one of which must have been beekeeping, as reflected on 10 of the 112 pages of the Codex.
Beehives have long been a metaphor for Christian life. “The bee is the wisest and cleverest of all animals and the closest to man in intelligence; its work is truly divine and of the greatest use to mankind”, writes a 10th century byzantine author.  Also, St. Frances de Sales wrote beautifully and multiple times about the bees and their work, taking the bees’ way of working, coordinating and supporting each other as illustration for the quiet and pure work of God. And true to form, from what I can tell, bees and beekeepers have not one but several patron saints: St. AmbroseSt. Valentine, and my personal favorite, St. Gobnait (also known as St. Abigail or St. Deborah), an Irish nun of the 6th century, plus St. Bernard of Clairvaux (beekeepers, wax makers, candlemakers). Not forgetting St. Benedict whose order gave us the blessing of the bees prayer, St. Haralambos who is mainly celebrated in Bulgaria, St Bartholomew who is much associated with honey mead, as well as multiple other saints who were prominent beekeepers.
Faith-based beekeeping continues today. Here, close to Vienna, the Stift Heiligenkreuz and the Kleine Schwestern in Regelsbrunn portray looking after beehives as a way to slow down and focus life on the real essentials. In Regelsbrunn, two beekeepers (both Sisters, one of whom is in their 80s) look after about 40 hives. Visiting this small community of five sisters is a sure way to find both peace and inspiration in how their monastic life is in step with nature and how their faith and prayers reflect this harmony. Just sitting in front of a beehive and watching the bees come in and out, finding the right flowers, helping each other in cleaning and carrying pollen, information and food is enriching for the soul.

Honey from the Kleinen Schwestern Jesu, a local monastic group residing right outside Vienna, can be purchased at the Schottenstift Store in the 1st district.
If you want to support local beekeeping do purchase your honey not in the very large chains but in local stores.
And yet, bees are under threat. Most of you will be well aware of recent studies documenting dramatic declines in insect populations driven by deforestation, climate change, invasive species, industrialized agriculture, use of toxic pesticides and even light pollution, and bees are affected by the very same developments. In Austria alone, the honeybee population has shrunk by about 25 percent (around 100,000 beehives) between 1995 and 2015, and wild bees are just as much under threat. Across Europe, as well as in Austria and even in Vienna, there are a number of initiatives to support and protect bees, including but not limited to honey bees. Just a month ago, the use of pesticides was a major battleground. Just three weeks ago, the European Court of justice upheld a lower court’s ban on three insecticides linked to harming bees. It is amazing to note that Bayer went through three levels of courts to have this verdict confirmed, a court case that ran since 2013 and had the Austrian and the German Beekeeper Associations involved as major drivers.
So what can regular folks do to help? If you have a garden or a balcony: plant flowers liked by bees (nicely, most spices and herbs used for cooking fall into that category). Be a lazy lawn mower. Check out this little video - it shows quite specifically what you can do to help some of the hundreds of wild bees (in German, but very illustrative). Become a member or otherwise support organizations that support bees - there are too many to list here but you may want to focus on those that support beekeeping or are in the nature conservation space more broadly. Political lobbying really matters - not just against pesticides but also for more diversity in landscapes and agriculture. Think like a bee: Together, with many others, we can make a difference.
To get started, do go out and get to know the bees in your neighbourhood!  Vienna, self styled city of bees, offers amazing opportunities for this: About 700 beekeepers manage around 5000 hives within the city limits. A great place to start are the beehives on Vienna’s cemeteries, including the Marxer Friedhof (across from Mozart’s grave) or the Zentralfriedhof, but don’t forget the Botanical Garden, the top of the Kunsthistorische Museum, the Kunsthaus Wien, or the rooftops of various hotels, the chancellery, the city hall and the opera.  And do get yourself some local honey! A good address is the Schottenstift - where you can also find the very honey produced by the Kleinen Schwestern. Enjoy!

Urban Beekeeping is not only possible but also encouraged here in Vienna. These beehives can be found on the Marxer Friedhof in the 3rd district.
Picture taken from the FB site of Biezen, one of the local urban beekeepers. 
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