Lockport church endures sticky situation after bees move in

Thu, Sep 27th 2018 03:00 pm
Father Ryszard Biernat holds a chunk of honeycomb that was removed from the All Saints Church roof. (Courtesy of Diocesan Buildings and Properties)
Father Ryszard Biernat holds a chunk of honeycomb that was removed from the All Saints Church roof. (Courtesy of Diocesan Buildings and Properties)

All of God's creation should be cared for and protected, even bees. So how do you protect a hive when it has become a problem and is in danger of damaging a church?

You move it using a vacuum.

That's how a large hive of honey bees recently was removed from a Lockport parish.

In June, Father Walter Szczney, pastor of All Saints Church, noticed something dripping down the exterior façade of the church building.

"We looked and said, 'It's honey dripping down the building!'" Father Szczney said, adding that the church had bees before but nothing like this.

Now the bees were becoming a problem.

"Inside the roof got hot, so the comb started melting," said Father Ryszard Beirnat, secretary to the bishop and a local beekeeper. "That's why it started dripping on the side of the walls of the church."

Father Szczney knew that something needed to be done before the church was damaged. He called Carol Anne Cornelius with Diocesan Buildings and Properties, the department responsible for the care and upkeep of all diocesan buildings.

"Over the years, the stone of the building and the wood of the roof separated, and the bees took advantage of that," Cornelius said. "The bees would never stop, and they will find a place to expand. Eventually, the bees would have been smart enough to get inside (the church)."

Using an infrared heat gun, Cornelius could determine exactly where the bees were living and develop a plan to remove the bees.

"We did check about whether we could go from the inside," said Father Szczney, adding that breaking into a wall was not possible. Father Szczney and Cornelius realized that the only way to get at the bees was from the front exterior of the church.

The beehive was located in the cornice of the church, an area between the church ceiling and the roof exterior.

"This cornice is an integral part of the building," Cornelius said. "It's decorative and important to keep the roof on."

Because of this, Cornelius feared that some damage to the roof and facade of the church would occur, so an expert roofer was hired. Shawn Gates from Century Architectural Sheet Metal accompanied Father Biernat.

Cornelius said the next concern was the safety of the bees. She noted that there are some state laws to protect the insects. She turned to Father Beirnat to see what advice he could offer, and Father Beirnat decided that he could remove the bees himself. Every effort was made to move the bees instead of killing them.

"People want to save the bees," Father Beirnat said. "They're important to our environment and farming."

Father Szczney agreed.

"They pollinate our flowers, but also our fruit our vegetables," he said. "We would be in danger without them."

Father Beirnat explained that even if they had sprayed, the problem would not go away. Bees would be attracted back to that spot because they would smell that there was a nest there and build a new one.

Father Beirnat and Gates used a high lift to reach the hive. Once they were high enough, it was discovered that small portals in the cornice could be pushed in, allowing Father Beirnat room to reach only one arm inside to remove the bees and their hive.

Father Beirnat likened it to working blind.

"I couldn't see what I was doing. That's why I didn't wear any gloves. I could feel the nest on the inside," said Father Beirnat. "It was a three-hour operation, and you're putting your hand into a bee's nest."

Father Beirnat also chose not to wear a beekeeper suit. This resulted in him getting stung by the angry bees.

Father Szczney knew that Father Beirnat was being stung,

"Maybe because of him working with bees before, the sting doesn't affect him," Father Szczney said. "He looked swollen a little bit there, but again his body is used to that. He wasn't flinching."

Father Beirnat had other reasons.

"I don't like heights, I'm afraid of heights," Father Beirnat said. "That's why I don't mind being stung. It distracts you from where you are. You can only focus on one pain at a time."

Through the morning and early afternoon, Father Beirnat pulled chunk after chunk of honeycomb out through the small holes. Father Szczney watched Father Beirnat extend his arm into those portals and pull out honeycomb and honey, then place it in garbage bags.

"Over and over and over again," Father Szczney said, guessing the removed honey and comb weighed 200 pounds.

The honeycomb could not be used to produce edible honey because it was not known if the honeycomb had been sprayed with pesticides in the past. Also, dust from the old shingles could have fallen into the honey. Father Beirnat felt it just wasn't worth the risk.

With the honeycombs removed, it was time to extract and relocate the bees. Father Beirnat removed the bees using a bee vacuum, which is the same as a regular vacuum cleaner, but with a cage replacing the bag.

"I was using smoke to push them away from the comb, and they were actually crawling to another space where I could suck them in," Father Beirnat said with a laugh. "They cooperated well with the plan."

Father Beirnat took the bees to Orchard Park where he keeps his hives. Once the bees are moved far enough away from the original hive, they will consider the new area as their nest, Father Beirnat said.

After the bees were removed Gates repaired the holes and sealed up the area where the bees were living so that no more bees will call All Saints Church home.

For Father Beirnat, working with bees gives him an immediate feeling that he has accomplished something.

"You help the bees and the church and had fun in the process," he said.

Cornelius agreed.

"In the long run we save the bees," she said.  

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