When the idea to raise honeybees took hold of Sister Mary Ann Pajakowski, CSC, she didn’t question where it came from. It had sailed in on a familiar wind that also sweeps and nudges her along life’s course.
Settled in Park City, in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains, for nearly 30 years, Sister Mary Ann is attuned to the seasonal habits and wonders of the landscape and wildlife—the patterns of snowfall and temperature, the first signs of rock sedum in spring. So nearly 10 years ago, when she learned about the declining bee population in the state, the U.S. and around the world, she followed up with some research. She discovered how climate stressors, pesticides and other factors have decimated the honeybee population and, in turn, jeopardized plant and crop pollination. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, more than 100 crops grown in the United States depend on pollinator species. One way Sister Mary Ann could help the honeybees (and native plants) rebound: support some bees.
She and housemate Sister Suzanne Brennan, CSC, scoured the web for the right bee home for their habitat and technical ability. Settling on a top bar hive, they sent away for a kit. “It’s a do it and learn as you go thing,” Sister Mary Ann says of her early forays in beekeeping. “It was a great adventure. You have to get used to them—because you are kind of afraid of them at first. But it was a good learning experience, and they did really well.”
A community welcome
Environment, Sister Mary Ann learned, is everything. As she worked to sustain the bees, a community turned out to support her. A neighbor with a machine shop fashioned a cover for the hive. The teacher of her beekeeping course stopped by often just to help out. And staff from Utah’s Department of Agriculture and Food visited regularly to inspect the hive and check for pests and diseases. Even the family next door with the alluring crabapple tree blessed her endeavor. Meanwhile, Sister Maura Brannick, CSC, recalling her own childhood farm life, sent some quick cash for a bee suit.
A couple years into the project, Sister Verónica A. Fajardo, CSC, joined Sister Mary Ann. The two bedecked their property with native trees, bushes and flowering perennials to keep the bees happy and help them thrive. In their high desert habitat they need to choose plantings that attract bees but also resist drought. A service berry, some crabapples and lilac bushes drew in the honeybees but also the bumble bees and the local mason bees. And a garden near the hive enticed with purple blooms and the scent of thyme.
Adapting for habitat
Each year the sisters remove a patch of grass from their property, as Utah’s multi-year drought has driven home the need for xeriscaping, landscaping requiring little to no water. Getting plants and trees to “take” is tough in a place with decreasing precipitation, high winds and severe winters. “You have to think, ‘What can survive here?’ Maybe a chokeberry or a maple,” shares Sister Mary Ann. As they adapt to the demands of a changing climate, neighbors are a well of trusted advice.
“This really is a community thing,” says Sister Verónica. “And it has been such a learning for me.” She marvels at the perfection of cells in a honeycomb, the colony’s precision and efficiency, and the grand role bees play in sustaining Earth’s intricate balances. That appreciation and respect are manifested too through her simple, daily coexistence with them. “Even when doing yardwork you need to be very creative. Make sure you tuck things in,” she says half laughing. “Really, you just need to remember that it’s about being respectful and creating an environment that’s welcoming to them and that they enjoy — and where there’s a lot of pollination work that can happen.”
“There’s this piece of life that is in a way dependent on you, and you have to respect that and care for it. And that keeps you from doing everything for yourself.”
Growing up, Sister Verónica regularly roamed and played in the green spaces of her grandparents’ property in rural Nicaragua. “Being in the natural world was wonderful,” she says, recalling their abundant fruit trees, pigs and chickens, and the plentiful beehives on other family lands. “The chickens slept in a certain part of [my grandparents’] house, and there were dogs, cats and birds, so being around creatures was natural.”
Sister Mary Ann’s farming family emigrated from Poland to the U.S. She remembers her busia’s garden engulfing most of the backyard, and they too had chickens, a wild grape vine, and big barrels for catching rain. “They were very plugged in to growing,” Sister Mary Ann says. Even now she can visualize her grandmother digging small holes in the garden, tossing in food scraps, and covering them over. “She was composting right in the garden,” she says. “If you were a kid you were automatically involved in all of that in helping her.”
Such early experiences with nature burrow deep into our subconscious, shaping our understanding of the world and our relationship with it. These are pollination moments — our senses, knowledge, development, memory dusted gold.
Sisters share gifts
Imbued with her childhood encounters, Sister Verónica carried them into a California classroom several years later. “As a teacher, I really got involved with caring for the environment and sustainability,” she says. Living near the ocean, she contributed to beach clean-ups and conservation efforts. She also took courses on creating healthy habitats and ecosystems, which widened her understanding of the interdependency of all things. She then dispensed that knowledge to her students through hands-on projects, trips to the beach and a sea laboratory, and class visits with environmental experts.
Sister Mary Ann also fanned her students’ interest in the natural world. While teaching at Saint Mary’s Academy in South Bend, Indiana, she took her pupils out to explore the great woods beyond the school. They tapped the trees and made maple syrup, foraged for wild leeks, made flour from cattails and soap from scratch. Students grew in awareness of the Earth’s gifts, but also the work and time required “just to live.” That mindfulness, says Sister Mary Ann, is just as necessary today. Consider, she says, people who live in countries with less infrastructure and “what they have to deal with every day in terms of food gathering and food preparation, transportation and the availability of water.”
A connected existence
“The water piece is the crucial thing here. It’s kind of this dance,” Sister Mary Ann says of her Utah home. Wildfires broke out just across the highway last year. And there they were, their house surrounded by trees. At one point, a family that had to evacuate came to live with them for a week. “It was pretty scary,” she says. “We have to be more conscious of those kinds of things that could happen because of the climate here.”
To that end, the sisters are having to let go of their hive. Some of their colonies perished during the region’s harsh winters, other times they vacated the hive sensing the oncoming cold. So they’re studying up on native bees and mason bees and what to do to cultivate their well-being. “Wintering is the same for everyone here,” shares Sister Mary Ann. “It’s very disappointing, but it’s just where we live.”
The experience has surfaced perspective. “I’ve come to think, what’s the difference between an animal living with you or a person?” says Sister Mary Ann. “We all have the same kind of basic needs. You need a home, a place where you feel accepted and loved. So why not do that for things other than people? … And it helps you with the people part too.”
“[Beekeeping teaches] interrelatedness ... and building community in a way that’s very broad. Not just community among people but community among the Earth, and the creatures of the Earth too.”
Life beyond ourselves
Spring comes slow to Park City, “but it gives you time to watch, to discover what’s happening in your environment,” says Sister Mary Ann. She likens it to her experience of spotting moose along I-80. “I probably see them because I’m looking for them.” In her watching, she also witnesses a connection between the natural world and the spiritual world. “When we have deer or moose, or other amazing things happen in the yard, you look at that and think, ‘Something bigger is happening here.’”
In the same way, the beekeeping has been a passage of unveilings. “It links to everything — our Mission and Core Values, the Holy Cross Statement on Climate Change, Laudato Si' and its message about our relationship with our common home,” says Sister Verónica. “It’s about interrelatedness, the connection piece, and building community in a way that’s very broad. Not just community among people but community among the Earth, and the creatures of the Earth too.”In all relationships — whether with humans, creatures, plants or the environment — “There’s this piece of life that is in a way dependent on you, and you have to respect that and care for it,” adds Sister Mary Ann. “And that keeps you from doing everything for yourself. … When I have to tend to bees or dogs or plants or gardens, it gets me more in touch with what is sustaining me in my daily life.”
Send me a copy!
The story shared here was also printed in one of our publications. If you are interested in a copy of the latest issue is inSpirit magazine or the Annual Giving Report, use the button below and fill out our online request form. You can also sign up to receive the online newsletter from the Development Office of the Sisters of the Holy Cross.