Jackson minister finds scriptural lessons in beekeeping

Sunday, July 21, 2002

Southeast Missourian

JACKSON, Mo. -- When Grant Gillard enrolled in entomology 222 at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, he thought the class would be the equivalent of basketweaving: an easy distraction from his hard-core studies.

It was far more practical than that. Twenty years later, Gillard is still learning about beekeeping, and the distraction that course provided then has turned into a hobby.

Gillard, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, has been selling his organic honey -- nearly 40 gallons of it -- primarily by word of mouth. He intends to set up a stand at his home to sell the products.

Recently, he started a Web site -- www.mohoney.homestead.com -- to showcase his honey and explain his beekeeping methods.

While the honey hasn't yet brought him much acclaim, Gillard is well known for his bee collection. He usually gets called when swarms of bees take up residence at homes or businesses. If the task is a difficult one, he might charge $50 for his efforts, but usually he's just happy to come and get the bees.

Many of the honeybees Gillard has were captured from local swarms. He's even raised new queens from those swarms.

Peak swarm season is from early April to the first part of July. During that time, queen bees are laying the most eggs, and the hives tend to become overcrowded. When new queen bees emerge, the older queen is often run out, and with her go swarms of bees.

And this season, Gillard kept busy getting a call a week from someone with a swarm. Ian Brown, north division director of the Missouri Bee Keepers Association, said this year he's received more calls about swarms than he has for the past five years.

But that could be because swarms tend to run in cycles, he said.

Art Gelder, president of the beekeepers association, said he hasn't seen any increase in the number of wild bees. "Most bees are coming from the beekeepers' hives," he said.

Bees aren't the easiest creatures to understand. Gillard said he is still learning about them. Some of those lessons have practical applications for life, while others are more spiritual.

On a recent afternoon, Gillard showed the Southeast Missourian his beehives and explained how much he's learned about life from these insects.

Honeybees tend to get a bad reputation for stinging when they really are diligent workers intent on completing their task. Stand in their flight path and they'll buzz by your head. They sting when they get agitated and are interrupted from their work, Gillard said.

Bees are forward thinkers, always trying to store up enough nectar to last them through the winter.

Bees also are pragmatic. They only work as hard as they have to, so if there are flowers nearby, that's where they'll head first when looking for nectar. Bees can travel between 2 and 3 miles looking for nectar.

Bees also have some great lessons to teach the church, Gillard said.

Among these lessons are learning to serve only one master and being content with what you have. Bees are loyal to only one queen, just as Scripture says you must serve only one master. Bees only do the jobs they're assigned but are willing to lay down their lives for the sake of the colony.

Bees also store up for the benefit of others. Bees usually live an average six weeks. During that time, they collect nectar for honey they'll never get to eat.

Few people today would think about saving for retirement only to turn that savings over to another person to use, Gillard said. Bees do exactly that.

But whatever he's learned about bees, Gillard knows this for certain: He doesn't keep the bees. "Bees keep us. We've learned to manage them," he said. "We've learned their activity, but they learn by instincts."

A visit to the old farmstead where Gillard keeps his collection of bees shows just how simple bees live. These bees don't actually have hives like those typically seen. They live in wooden boxes, building their honeycombs on a horizontal frame inserted into the box. Most of the frames are wood, but a few are plastic.

The frame already has the pattern of a honeycomb so the bees don't have as much work to do, but even when Gillard gets the bees started, they tend to do whatever they want. Some won't build their honeycombs all the way across the frame, preferring one corner to another.

The honey Gillard harvests has a mild, light taste. Most of the nectar for the honey comes from clover in nearby fields and from wildflowers in the area.

Gillard doesn't cook his honey; he prefers it in its most natural state. He has a hand-crank machine that helps extract the honey from the frame. While cooked honey has a longer shelf-life, it also has less of what comes from the hive.

Gillard believes the organic, natural honey is best. "My honey retains all the goodness that God intended," he says on his Web site.

ljohnston@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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