Oceanside Monk Leaves A Sweet Legacy Through Beekeeping
Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Photo by Maya Trabulsi
Prince of Peace Abbey sits at the top of a hill in Oceanside, about two miles east of the Pacific Ocean. Since 1958, monks at the abbey have led their lives around prayer and work. Brother Blaise Heuke, 80, joined the order as soon as he finished high school.
Brother Blaise says his devotion to God has been a lifelong joy. His other joy is beekeeping. He raises bees at the abbey and extracts their honey to share among his brothers and to sell in the abbey gift shop. Brother Blaise has been sharing more than just the honey with young visitors, but also the process by which it is harvested.
Now he needs to find even more strength in his faith and his craft, because Brother Blaise is dying. But he doesn't like to think about that. He wants to keep making honey and look forward to others taking his place, maintaining the hives.
“It’s a treasure I like to pass on,” he said.
Each week after Sunday mass, Brother Blaise invites a group of young visitors to join him at his honey workshop. He uses no modern tools, preferring a more primitive experience.
“Like to cut the wax off they have to cut it off by hand and to extract it they have to run the machine by hand. I could get an automatic machine to do that for me, but then it would take away from the joy of the kids doing it.”
He uses a hot knife to break open the honeycomb cells and then a scraping tool to release more honey. The honeycomb frames are then placed inside a hand-cranked centrifuge, which he tasks the kids with spinning. Brother Blaise then uses a wooden block to tilt the vat as the honey pours out of the bottom spout.
“It’s all very down to earth,” he said.
Brother Blaise now has 50 hives, with thousands of bees making honey from nearby wild brush like anise, sage, and buckwheat. His bees are from unwanted swarms collected from properties around the county. In the spring, each hive can produce about a gallon of honey per week, which is then jarred and sold in the abbey gift shop. When his queens die or get injured he can order new queens for $25 each.
Father Paul Farrelly, a fellow monk at the abbey, said the honey is a very good thing for the community because it gives people a part of the monastery and of what goes on here.
“I don’t think it makes us millions of dollars, as far as the sales of the honey. But anyone who eats that honey gets some of the love that Brother Blaise puts into getting it into the jars,” said Father Farrelly.
Harvesting honey at the abbey has had its ups and downs. Twenty years ago Brother Blaise had twice as many hives.
“All of a sudden all my bees died just almost overnight. They had just constructed four cell phone towers on our property. I didn’t think anything of it. Those towers looked innocent to me,” said Brother Blaise.
The Abbey signed a long-term contract to house the towers on their property. Brother Blaise believed the microwaves from the towers interfered with the bees’ internal navigation system, so they couldn’t find their way home. But the towers were here to stay.
“So, I took my cell phone out. I walked around until I didn’t get any message. Down at the bottom of the hill, you don’t get any signal in that little cul-de-sac. And so I moved my bees there and I have no problem anymore. The microwaves coming off those towers do not interrupt the bees. “
He moved his hives 250 feet down to a clearing at the bottom of the hill. After a few months, his bee colony started to thrive again and so did the honey production. Joanne Bruning, manager of the abbey gift shop, said it was not unusual for people to walk out of the gift shop with a box of 12 jars of honey.
“It’s just amazing how many people Brother Blaise has touched their lives – just incredible – through the honey. We call him the saint around here,” she said.
In 2015, Brother Blaise was diagnosed with cancer of the lymph nodes. He has chosen not to seek treatment, but instead marks the progression of his condition by his weekly weight loss.
“They took a biopsy and they said well, you have cancer, and so I resigned myself that this is the end of my life coming, which is OK. I’ve had many years of good health and we all gotta go sometime,” he said.
Brother Blaise puts his health and his future entirely in God’s hands.
“Right now I have no pain but I probably still have cancer but I don’t know the results of that until time. Time will tell.”
Brother Blaise hopes the abbey will continue to be a place for reflection, prayer and, of course, honey. He is passing on his beekeeping knowledge to another monk, Brother Peter Khoa, who will continue the legacy for the abbey and its young visitors.
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