Brother Beekeeper Finds Sweet Side to Hobby

by Karen Mahoney

Dressed in protective garb, Jim Molnar looks over a honeycomb at the Redemptorist Retreat Center in Oconomowoc, Wis. He assists Redemptorist Brother Gerry Patin, director of the center, who raises funds for the retreat facility by selling honey, lip balm and all-natural soaps made from products from the hives.

OCONOMOWOC, Wis. (CNS) – If one roams the Redemptorist Retreat Center’s 20 acres of natural woodlands, the only sounds to be heard breaking 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 columbine, lilies and other wildflowers that line the property.

Affectionately known as Brother Beekeeper, 62-year-old Redemptorist Brother Gerry Patin, director of the 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 that make the honey and hundreds of drones that mate with the queen then die; to that, add the weight of the comb with eggs, brood and larvae, pollen stores and honey.

Unexpected Avocation

In general, beekeeping is easy and fun, according to Brother 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, Wisconsin,” 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.’”

He got a crash course in beekeeping, read everything he could find on the subject and found beekeeping to be not only calming and enjoyable but also a great success.

Later on, the high school seminary closed. Brother Gerry sold the bee equipment and hives. He was transferred to Holy Redeemer parish in Detroit, serving there the next 17 years.

In 2003, Brother Gerry was transferred back to Wisconsin to direct the Oconomowoc facility, and beekeeping once again became 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 told the Catholic Herald, Milwaukee’s archdiocesan newspaper. “I started out small with three hives and gradually increased them to the 14 I now tend.”

Supporting the Center

Brother Gerry began selling the honey to help support the center. People coming for retreats showed great interest in purchasing it, so he began thinking of other ways to use the honey and beeswax in products to sell 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.”

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 Brother 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.”

A Spiritual Aspect

“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.”

He’s often asked about the honeybee stinger and how often Brother Gerry gets stung.

“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.”

As a Redemptorist brother for 43 years, Brother 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.

“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,” he added.

“It is an opportunity that doesn’t come along too often in today’s busy world.”[hr]

Bars of soap made with honey and bee’s wax are offered for sale in 2011 at the Redemptorist Retreat Center Gift Shop in Oconomowoc, Wis.

Editor’s Note: For more information on Brother Beekeeper’s products, including honey, soap and lip balm, visit: www.brotherbeekeeper.org or call (262) 269-6125.

Mahoney writes for the Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.