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Priest tends to his flocks; Associate pastor at St. Amelia Church uses his beekeeping as a way to feel closer to nature, closer to God

The buzz around a young Catholic priest in the Town of Tonawanda has a lot to do with his unusual pastime.

The Rev. Ryszard S. Biernat, 31, is a beekeeper.

When he's not celebrating Masses, hearing confessions or making sick calls, there's a good bet you can find him tending to millions of honeybees around Erie County.

Biernat, an associate pastor at St. Amelia Church, has more than 100 beehives at apiaries in Elma, Orchard Park and Hamburg.

The hobby stems back to Biernat's youth in Limanowa, Poland, where he purchased his first hive as a curious sixth-grader.

These days, the bees serve as a touchstone for Biernat's faith – as well as a regular source of inspiration for his homilies and daily conversations with people.

The priest usually spends Sunday afternoons checking on the hives, each of which can house as many as 200,000 bees.

"It's my time for prayer," he said. "You feel close to nature and, through that, closer to God."

Biernat, who was ordained in 2009, also believes his hobby complements his vocation.

"As a beekeeper, you help bees thrive. And as a pastor, you help a parish thrive," he said.

Biernat was drawn to the mysterious world of bees as a youngster volunteering at the local library because he loved books.

He recalled coming across a dusty old book about beehives published in 1902 that had never been checked out. Biernat felt bad that no one had read the book, so he took it home – and thus began a lifelong affection for the industrious insects that gather nectar from flowers and convert it into honey.

His beekeeping was put on hold when he decided to leave his native Poland and enrolled in 2002 at SS. Cyril and Methodius Seminary in Orchard Lake, Mich., to study for the priesthood.

A trip with fellow seminarians to Niagara Falls and Cheektowaga led him to relocate to the Diocese of Buffalo and complete his theological studies at Christ the King Seminary in Aurora.

He resumed beekeeping in his first parish assignment at Nativity of Our Lord Church in Orchard Park, where he was able to use an area of the parish's cemetery to store hives.

Later, various friends offered the use of their private property.

In Elma, Robert and Mary Rozeski welcomed Biernat to establish an apiary of 35 hives, and they now find themselves enthralled by the bees, which haven't caused any problems for them.

Unlike pesky yellow jackets, which love to mar an otherwise fine outdoor meal in the summer, honeybees don't target human food.

"Honeybees are interested in plants and flowers," said
Biernat.

On a warm August afternoon, Biernat guided a guest to the backyard of the Rozeski property to get an up-close glimpse of bees in action inside the hives.

The visitor wore a full body cloth bee suit, complete with a screen over his head.

Biernat walked to the teeming hives in shorts and a golf shirt.

He wasn't stung a single time, even as bees buzzed all around.

Biernat used a hand-held smoker to blow puffs of smoke near the hives, disrupting the bees' ability to communicate with each other and thus preventing them from attacking him en masse.

"They communicate via pheromones, so when one stings you, it's more likely that others will follow," he said.

Biernat estimates he's been stung "probably thousands of times" in his life.

"It hurts for a few moments, but my body no longer reacts to it," he said. "The worst thing they can do is sting me, and I can deal with that. I can deal with 30,000 bees, but not one spider."

Biernat's facility with bees has fascinated parishioners and colleague priests alike. He has conducted several parish workshops on beekeeping and isn't shy about incorporating bee imagery into his homilies.

"He has lots of ways of making adaptations from beekeeping to the real world," noted Monsignor Thomas F. Maloney, pastor of St. Amelia, who praised Biernat's ability to connect with people, no matter the subject.

"He does outstanding work as a priest," Maloney said.

Biernat chose a passage from the Gospel of John – "May They Be One" – as his priestly motto, in part because of his admiration for bees, which have long been revered in Eastern Europe as symbols of Christian unity because of their willingness to work together toward the common goal of producing honey.

A single honeybee by itself is capable of making a mere fraction of a tablespoon of honey in its lifetime, Biernat said.

But in his most recent harvest, Biernat extracted about 200 pounds of honey from the hives.

"It's only because they work together that they can accomplish that," he said.

Biernat bottles the honey and sells it in area parishes as "Father Ryszard's Holy Honey," using the proceeds to sustain the apiaries.

His beekeeping exploits also have allowed him entry well beyond the area's Catholic community.

He has received at least 30 calls this year alone to remove hives or swarms of bees from various places, including a house in North Boston where the homeowner was surprised when Biernat showed up in priestly attire.

"It's so funny when they see me with my collar on, and they say, ‘I called a beekeeper, not a priest.'?"

email: jtokasz@buffnews.com