I bumped into this photo a few days ago when I was writing an article for Deutches Bienen Journal, Germany’s beekeeping magazine. I was trying to picture sisters at a convent in Quebec, tending their hives in the 1920s. This photo came up in a web search, but it was within a mass of old pictures, none of them dated or described. It’s an interesting picture, isn’t it? We can only guess at the date (nun fashion is pretty stagnant). My grandmother owned a metal pitcher similar to the one being used to feed the bees, which might take this back a hundred years. The photo image quality also suggests sometime between the ’20s and ’40s. The hives seem European, but North Americans with small, immobile apiaries sometimes use similar boxes. Where was the apiary? Obviously in some northern temperate area with enough rain to produce deciduous trees and lots of brush. Maybe it was Quebec in the 1920s. But maybe not.
It’s interesting to see beekeepers without veils, dressed in black clothing in the bee yard. It’s probably chilly and the bees are losing strength – maybe white suits and veils were used by these nuns in mid-summer. But maybe not. The colony being fed is hanging out at the entrance, so it is likely still fairly strong. Or maybe Sister Melissa kicked the hive to awaken the bees, but I doubt it. You can never guess the whole story from a single picture.
For the German beekeeping journal, I wanted to describe the Sisters of Ursuline, who mostly live in an ancient convent in Quebec City. The Quebec mission was established in 1639. The Ursulines were organized a hundred years earlier by the Italian saint, Angelica Meirici. Since its founding, its purpose has been the education of girls and care of the sick. The Ursuline convent (the Monastère des Ursulines de Québec) was the first place in North America to educate girls.
Bees were part of the mission, too. According to the March, 1921, American Bee Journal, the Ursuline Sisters kept 22 colonies of bees on the shores of Lac Saint-Jean in Roberval, where they produced 4,020 pounds of honey in 1920 – that’s a 183-pound (83 kg) average. Not bad for anyone, anywhere.
Catholic missions have long been known for their beekeepers, whose original task was to produce wax for candles, which, according to Catholic requirements, had to be purely beeswax (produced by the virgin workers of a honey bee hive). That requirement was cut to 51% beeswax for most liturgical uses around 1900. Today, beeswax is usually not required in church candles at all. But originally, many monasteries keep bees mostly for beeswax candles. Honey was a nice bonus.
I visited a Franciscan monastery a few years ago in southern Hungary where an elderly monk showed me his hives. (Here’s the full story.) The monastery colonies were lined against a wall in a courtyard. Father Celerin and his dog Pempo (Hungarian for propolis) guided me to some huge bee boxes with extra-deep frames. It was early October, the weather was mild, but the bees were settling in for winter. The hive strength, winter stores, and tight brood cluster were not extraordinary, but in the presence of the old monk, in the courtyard of the old monastery, examining hundred-year-old hives, the sense of continuity was palpable.