The Beekeeper Nun
This photojournalism essay is part of a gender analysis, conducted under the United Nations Productive Sector Development Programme (PSDP). It examines the daily lives and work and care responsibilities of women working across the fruits, vegetables, and nuts agricultural and agri-food value chains in North Lebanon.
Supported by UN Women, Lea benefitted from a soft skills training part of the PSDP, generously funded by the Government of Canada. The PSDP is implemented by six United Nations entities: FAO, UNIDO, UNDP, UNICEF, ILO, and UN Women.
“I love observing bees—how organised and committed they are, and their awkward waggle dance! Every bee has a specific role to play but also each individual role depends on the collective. There’s a lot to learn from that.”
The Beekeeper Nun
A warm day, afternoon light trickling through the almond and olive trees at the Monastery of St. Joseph, Tomb of St. Rafqa. Sister Lea emerged out of the monastery’s arches and into the courtyard with a light-hearted smile, her black tunic robes trailing behind her. Behind her small frame and swift gait, the monastery was large—implanted on a plateau in the luscious green stretch of Mount Jrabta in the Batroun area North of Lebanon.
One of the first things Sister Lea told us about herself, as we walked through the monastery’s spacious old-stone courtyard, was that she likes to do things in reverse, often the hard way too. “The idea of having to conform,” she chuckled, “it bothers me.” In retrospect, we realised that one of the reasons we were immediately taken by Sister Lea’s wit and ease was because somewhere in our heads, we’d folded over the notion that a monastery was perhaps epitome of structure, of conformity. But for Sister Lea, becoming a nun was a calling, an invitation to a life of many possibilities. Her decision, though, had surprised many of the people in her life and was met with deep resistance. “But once you know,” she shrugged, “you know.”
The monastery has been her home for years now and within it, she’s found her peace and pace. When we walked around, the other nuns, as well as the drivers and neighbours, greeted Sister Lea with familiarity and care, often nodding her way with a cheeky smile too. She is known in the monastery as the jack of all trades. Sister Lea overlooks financial and administrative issues, waters the plants, designs and illustrates graphics for events, plumbs, takes care of electricity issues. More than anything perhaps, she identifies as a beekeeper.
She’s long been entranced by bees, how integral they are to our ecosystem. Before becoming a beekeeper—nearly ten years ago now—she studied the patterns and behaviour of bees: how they forage, the way they cover themselves in pollen, their process of transporting nectar pollen baskets to the hive. The nectar, Sister Lea told us, is stored and mixed with enzymes in the bees’ guts and then eventually dehydrated to become honey.
In her workshop near the monastery, a modest ground floor stone house surrounded by grape trees, there were endless posters, calendars, and paintings of bees everywhere you look. Books were placed atop dark wooden shelves in the room and most of them, unsurprisingly, were on bees and beekeeping. We noticed soon after that some of the books were actually written by Sister Lea herself. One was The Sister and The Bee, the other Got Celiac? Me Too.
“Wait. So you’re an author too?”
“I guess so?” she laughed.
One of the books is a beautifully animated children’s book on celiac disease. When Lea was young, she struggled with digestive issues and no one ever understood what the problem was. “I hated food. I couldn’t look at it.” Her graphic book follows the life of a little boy who, with the help of his grandfather, finally realises the reason behind his constant suffering. Gluten. “That little boy is me,” she pointed at the lanky figure with curly brown hair. “I wrote this book so others understand what this disease does and how it can be mitigated.” When she handed us two jars of her golden-colored honey, she chuckled that honey is luckily gluten-free. Her second book, The Sister and The Bee, starts with “Once upon a time, in a monastery far, far away, lived a lazy and unorganised nun named Sister Lea.”
Today, Sister Lea overlooks 55 hives on a strip of land above the monastery. Her hives are named after meaningful people in her life—living or dead. “My life,” she said, “has become intrinsically connected to these bees. And bees are intrinsically connected to everything around us. It is deeply spiritual. All animals and humans rely on the pollination process.”
It is in nature, with her bees, that Sister Lea feels most connected to the world around her. She draws a lot of parallels between the monastery and the beehive. What fascinates her most is this web of collectivity, how the roles that bees and nuns take on are all intricately connected and done for the benefit of the community. She also pointed out how nuns in a monastery elect a superior once every three years while bees have one queen for the same duration of time. And ultimately, being a “good” nun or bee means living a life of modesty, servitude, and humility. “If you watch bees, you realise how each one of them has a purpose. There is so much structure and organisation in the world of bees. At the same time, everything is shared by everyone—the honey is for the whole community. It is the same in the monastery. Everything we do is for each other, for God.”
Sister Lea wakes up at around 6 a.m. By 7:30 a.m., she—along with the 22 other nuns—has finished her morning prayers. Afterwards, each of the nuns has a certain task to do. “We complete one another,” she said. It is only when her tasks as a nun are finished that Sister Lea visits her precious bees. On a weekly basis, Sister Lea inspects her hives. She makes sure the colony is growing, the queen bee is laying eggs. She overlooks the worker bees to ensure they are developing their honey stores.
In between her visits, she continues to learn about beekeeping and its tricks, which she told us is an evolving art. “Every visit to the bees, I learn something new. Being a beekeeper means remaining flexible and attentive. Any chance, whether in the weather or something else, affects bees.” Understanding bees better means understanding the specific landscape and climate we inhabit. This entails learning about local diseases and mites, weather patterns, and survival rates. “When you are a beekeeper, you become attentive to everything.”
Certainly the art of beekeeping is local, intimately connected to an area’s geography. But in Lebanon, apiculture has historically been male-dominated which, Sister Lea reminded us, is ironic considering how female-dominated the world of bees is. When Sister Lea joined a 50-member WhatsApp group for beekeepers in Lebanon to coordinate and share knowledge with one another, she was surprised to find only one other woman on the group. “I don’t really think about my gender though. For me, a woman can do anything. She just needs to want to, and then needs to take matters into her own hands.” Ultimately more women in Lebanon are turning to beekeeping as a source of income-provision and the idea of beekeeping as an industry reserved for men is swiftly changing.
After our tour of the monastery, we drove up to her beehives, where the sun hovered low. The road was bumpy, even in Sister Lea’s four-wheel Lada, and we stuck our heads outside the window to swallow the tangy air. Before we stepped out, we covered our faces with the beekeeping gear she had lent us. Sister Lea then opened the hives to introduce us to her bees and they swarmed around her arms like swirls of smoke. She told us to come closer, assured us they were well-behaved today.
“With the bees I can forget about this country’s misery,” she said. Often she thinks of how much suffering there is in Lebanon, how much pain its communities have had to endure over the past couple of years, the spiritual healing needed in the country. When we asked her how the crisis has affected beekeeping, she listed a number of issues: the price of beekeeping gear has quadrupled, the sale of honey has reduced. Even the number of people driving to the monastery has significantly declined because of the fuel crisis. “Beekeepers need more support than ever, especially those trying to enter the field.”
And yet she cannot imagine a world without her bees. For her, if thousands and thousands of bees can live together in peace, then perhaps so can we. Despite the situation, she wants to continue growing her colony. Particularly she wants to work with pollen and propolis for medicinal purposes and also wants to start producing more soap and candles from beeswax.
Once we arrived at the monastery, the sun had set, the night sky tinting everything in navy blue. We complemented her driving skills after we stepped out of her Lada. She told us she loves cars and that in a different world, she might’ve been a car mechanic in a garage. “I love to fix broken things.”