Hive of hardworking honeybees poisoned in Florida church’s mission garden

Office staff at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Fort Myers ‘sad and mad’

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

Some of the honeybees in the mission garden at Covenant Presbyterian in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by Kent Sheets)

LOUISVILLE — It’s only been a few months since Covenant Presbyterian Church in Fort Myers, Florida, worked with a professional beekeeper to relocate a couple of well-established bee colonies from an old, rotten tree on the property. The bees were successfully moved to side-by-side hives in the church’s Together We Grow Mission Garden.

Just last week the church’s beekeeper, Uwe (pronounced Ooo-va) Rusch, harvested the first batch of honey that will be going to Misión Peniel, the Immokalee farmworkers ministry of Peace River Presbytery.

On Monday, the church got “sad, sad news.” Someone poisoned one of the church’s beehives, and 40,000-50,000 bees died. Evidence found near the hive makes it clear the act was a deliberate killing of one of the two hives of bees, according to the Rev. Jeffrey DeYoe, the church’s senior pastor. The other hive was not harmed.

“Losing the bee colony has felt like losing members of one’s family,” DeYoe said. “Their existence added something to our self-image and sense of being with God’s world around us. As Uwe shared with us in a recent children’s sermon, recorded on video, honeybees are the only insects that produce food for human beings. We gave them space and they got busy doing good things.”

The brown hive is home to a colony of bees moved from an old tree. The white hive is receiving bees from a set of fiberglass steps brought to the church campus. The barrel is a third hive of bees brought to the campus. (Photo by Kent Sheets)

WINK News came to Covenant to cover the story and, in the course of the interview, Uwe stood in front of the camera with a number of bees crawling on his hand, while he held a jar of honey,” DeYoe said. “He was making the point that bees are harmless unless they feel threatened.”

All the food harvested from the mission garden is distributed through Misión Peniel, and the Pan de Vida, “bread of life” ministry it founded and oversees. Pan de Vida volunteers cook and deliver three healthy meals every week to any farmworker who is elderly or who is homebound as the result of disability or illness.

Covenant Presbyterian, a Matthew 25 church in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), dedicated its Together We Grow Mission Garden on Earth Day, April 22, 2018. The idea for a mission garden was birthed from a Sunday school class discussion about food security challenges of Immokalee farmworkers, who often struggle to put nutritious food of their preference on the table.  The class was offered a “jungly” section of church property. After Hurricane Irma in 2017, about 20 church members began clearing the property. They used axes, machetes, hoes and a chain saw. They worked to dig up tree roots, form planting beds and improve the soil.

The Rev. Jeffrey DeYoe conducts a blessing of the Together We Grow Mission Garden on Earth Day 2018. (Photo by Kent Sheets)

Ellen and Rick Burnette, two Covenant members who served as agricultural missionaries in Thailand and other countries for many years, guided a team of volunteers in the development of the garden, with a goal of growing nutritious food that is well-loved by migrant worker families in the Immokalee community, but which they cannot readily and affordably find at local farmers’ markets or grocery stores. Almost everyone in Immokalee gardened and farmed in their home communities in Haiti, Guatemala and Mexico. Yet now they were putting food on American plates while facing uncertainty about their own meals, the Burnettes and others realized.

Cultivate Abundance co-founder Rick Burnette, a mission garden partner, explains bucket gardening to Vacation Bible School students in 2018. (Photo by Kent Sheets)

Volunteers planted legumes like pigeon peas; root vegetables like cassava, sweet potatoes, taro and malanga; and fruit trees including banana, papaya, plantains, mango, carambola and avocado.

The Burnettes say the mission garden at Covenant helped them in many ways to step away from their previous employment, and the security of monthly paychecks, to launch Cultivate Abundance, a faith-based nonprofit. Cultivate Abundance promotes home and community gardening in Southwest Florida’s Immokalee farmworkers community and beyond.

Volunteer Linda Nelson holds a small part of the June sweet potato bumper crop in the Together We Grow Mission Garden. (Photo by Rick Burnette)

Soon after the Together We Grow Mission Garden took root at Covenant, Cultivate Abundance helped start the Misión Peniel Educational Garden to inspire, demonstrate, propagate and build community. The first “portable gardens” at Misión Peniel were 3- to 5-gallon buckets planted with lettuce, vegetable amaranth, mustard, eggplant, cherry tomatoes and okra. Since 2018 the garden at Misión Peniel has grown and shared over 3,000 pounds and dozens of types of vegetables, fruit and herbs, including several rare crops such as Guatemalan maize and chipilín, a leafy green Central American perennial vegetable.

In addition to gardens at Covenant Presbyterian and Misión Peniel, Cultivate Abundance partners with gardens at Golden Gate Community Center in Naples, at the Immokalee Health Education Site of Florida State University College of Medicine and in other efforts by small-scale food producers honoring farmworkers.

In reflecting on the sudden, tragic and senseless death of the honeybees at Covenant, Cultivate Abundance co-founder Rick Burnette said, “As we’ve been taught that each sparrow matters to God, certainly tens of thousands of poisoned bees are a loss. Our garden demonstrates God-ordained interdependence; from the countless decomposers building the soil to the pollinators that visit the papaya, mango and starfruit flowers, to we growers who share skills, labor and friendship. We trust that the loss of these bees won’t be in vain, but, instead, remind us of the sacredness of all life and our responsibility as stewards.”

Beekeeper Uwe Rusch spent five hours transferring a colony of honeybees from some fiberglass steps to their new hive in the mission garden at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Ft. Myers, Florida. (Photo by Kent Sheets)

On Tuesday, Rusch pulled up with trailer in tow and asked the pastor and office staff to come outside. “He reminded me of an excited young boy as he opened the back end to show us a new colony of bees he had just extracted from a woman’s property,” DeYoe said. “It was being donated to Covenant to replace the bees that we lost!”

“And so,” DeYoe said, “we persist in faith,  knowing that God is the eternal beekeeper we need to see us through times like these.”

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