In the village of Schomberg, an Anglican priest has found unusual common ground to help her connect with her neighbours: bees. The Rev. Sheilagh Ashworth, incumbent of Christ Church, Kettleby and St. Mary Magdalene, Schomberg, has been a beekeeper for about five years.
“I’ve always had a deep love for nature. I’d been in parish ministry for about 20 years at that point, and I realized I hadn’t been doing much to take care of the earth,” she says. She’d also heard about colony collapse disorder, in which worker bees disappear from a hive. “I’d always wanted to farm, and I thought, that’s something I could learn and actually feel like I was doing something.”
She says new conversations and relationships with her neighbours have been an unexpected benefit of her pastime. “When I tell people I’m a priest, they often don’t know what to say, but everyone has something to say to a beekeeper. They’re curious,” she says. “It’s a farming neighbourhood here, so it’s a really good connection for people.”
When people stop at her Happy Honey stand at the end of her driveway, conversations often turn to religion. “We joke that people come for honey and stay for Jesus,” she says. “It’s put me in touch with a lot more people than I ever would have met.”
Ms. Ashworth has quickly become an enthusiastic advocate for bees and for humans’ role in caring for them. “They tell us about the direction we’ve been driving the world in. I like that people take an interest in them, because it’s showing us what we need to do to get back on track,” she says. While no single cause has been identified, experts believe pesticides, climate change and loss of habitat all contribute to colony collapse.
She says beekeeping can be quite physically demanding. “In the springtime, you go in and you see how they overwintered, if they need to be split,” she says. “When they procreate, they swarm. What we try to do as a beekeeper is prevent the swarming and give them enough space so they can pull in honey and get ready for the winter.” In the summer, she also has to protect the hives against bears, racoons and skunks, all of which like to eat bees.
But amidst the hard work of beekeeping, Ms. Ashworth says she’s seen a benefit to her spiritual health. “Everything about bees is for healing and for good,” she says. “What I love about it is how reflective they are, how good they are for people to be around. As soon as you come to the apiary and you get comfortable, your blood pressure comes down, your heart rate slows down.”
She also finds that beekeeping fits well with her role as a priest providing pastoral care. “There’s an old thing called telling the bees. Because they’re such a communal creature, you had to tell the bees what was going on in your life, whether there was a birth or a death, and if you didn’t tell the bees they would leave,” she says. “They do draw that out; being around them makes you want to be gentler and in greater harmony with nature, with yourself, with your family and the people you care for.”
While Ms. Ashworth jokes that she’s promised to limit references to beekeeping in her sermons, she says she find the queen bee a particularly suitable image. “She only spends a couple of days out in the sunlight, and then everything else she does looks like sunlight. She makes honey that looks like sunlight, she makes wax that looks like sunlight, the wax creates a flame that looks like sunlight,” she says. “It’s a great preaching point, that we have these encounters with God and we spend the rest of our lives trying to point to it, saying, ‘It’s like this.’”
As she keeps sharing her experiences in her town and beyond, Ms. Ashworth says she hopes she can encourage people to support beekeeping and even think about becoming beekeepers themselves. “If people want to learn, I’m happy to teach them. There are seasons when it takes some time, but it’s very manageable,” she says. “It’s not lucrative, but it’s a good thing to do. It’s worth my time, it’s worth my effort for sure.”