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Posted September 23, 2009

Bees keep community abuzz at Catholic retirement home

By Clarice Keating
Catholic News Service

LAKE OSWEGO, Ore. (CNS) -- Bees are a blessing in John Skeele's life.

Having spent most of his adult years living on a small farm and wandering the wilds of Washington's forests as a timber appraiser, he found that moving to a suburban retirement community was a difficult adjustment.

In 2007, Skeele and his wife, Mitzi, decided it was time to sell their acreage and relocate from rural Battle Ground, Wash., to Mary's Woods in Lake Oswego.

One hobby from Skeele's bucolic past life, however, came with him -- beekeeping.

"Some days I like to go out and sit in a chair and watch the bees," he said of the three hives that currently sit in a serene, unused field adjacent to the retirement community.

Occasionally, on fair days, Skeele walks the 20 minutes to the field where he dons a protective veil, lights a few strips of burlap on fire in the smoker, and pulls out a few frames from the hive to check on his flying flock.

But mostly he leaves them alone.

"Bees thrive on benign neglect," Skeele said. "They don't care to be disturbed."

Other residents in the community have taken interest in Skeele's hobby. Especially curious are residents who tend community garden plots at Mary's Woods. Honeybees are in charge of pollinating 90 percent of the flowering crops here in the United States.

They comment often when they see his bees, hard at work, near the villas and apartments, and inquire as to their well-being.

Holy Names Sister Katherine O'Neill said the Mary's Woods leadership encourages and supports residents in pursuing these types of pastimes.

"Our community is committed to the full development of the human person; we've always responded to people's needs," she said. "These people not only share our land; they also share that commitment to the fullest development of the person. All of the individual things that residents are able to do enables them to age very well, and they make the whole place more interesting."

Today, Sister O'Neill is a resident at Mary's Woods, but she came to the facility in 2001, when it opened, to serve in the pastoral services department.

Mary's Woods was founded by the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary to provide housing and health services in a community that includes their own retired sisters.

Apartment complexes and the health center are built around the provincial house, which has been on the sisters' property since 1932.

Many of the features of the community are there because of people like Skeele. Golfers worked to install a putting green. Green thumbs petitioned for the raised beds.

While beekeeping is more of a solitary hobby, Skeele is always happy to share information -- and honey -- when asked.

Although, as yet, there has been no extra honey.

These swarms are the most gentle he's ever owned in 40 years of beekeeping, but so far they're not big producers, Skeele said.

Honey production can vary from year to year depending on the weather, or the politics of the hive, or for no apparent reason at all.

Back in Battle Ground, Skeele's hives at the farm produced 28 gallons of honey one year. Another year, they yielded only three gallons.

These small hives of 10,000 or so bees have had a rough start since Skeele set them up last year. They made it through the winter, but a queen died, and one swarm keeps mysteriously losing members, perhaps due to pesticides used somewhere nearby, he said. They produce enough to sustain the hive, but not enough excess for extraction.

Skeele hopes for enough honey to share come harvest time next year.