BURLESON, TX — For most of us, the zingy flavor of fermented honey is unfamiliar. For Kent Heimbigner, self-proclaimed Bishop of Bees in Burleson, the precious amber beverage brings such sipping pleasure that he makes his own and passes on the gift. He does sell his gooey, raw local harvest, but that’s not his day job. The Rev. Kent Heimbigner pastors Charity Lutheran Church, and nurturing the members takes most of his week. Sundays he gives sermons written from his recliner at home. Here, in the center of his peaceful, active family, the encouraging messages are worked out. Over the years since joining Charity Lutheran in 1997, his not- so-secret fascination with bees has illustrated several ideas in his sermons.
One Sunday, after a bee stung him above one of his eyes, the reverend assured the congregation that if John the Baptist, who ate locusts and wild honey, was raiding beehives, he was probably similarly stung and not very attractive. Kent emphasizes that the outward appearance is not what is most important. Even when he doesn’t look his best, on days when he is puffy-faced from a bee sting, this preacher’s goal is to speak the truth. Burleson’s Bishop of Bees does not raid wild hives. He removes hives for people who would rather not have busy bees under their doghouse. For instance, of the 26 identified subspecies of honeybees, our area hosts both Italian and Africanized varieties. Kent uses a yellow bee brush to move the bees off of his body without harming them. “When I have to use that thing like a windshield wiper, when they thrust their abdomen in my veil to try to inject venom in my eyes, when they gang up on you,” Kent said, “that’s when I know I am dealing with Africanized bees.”
Different honeybees have different characteristics. “The only thing that stops violent bees from taking over that niche of the environment is domestic beekeepers that don’t want to play with them. So, we replace queens in hives that are cranky with queens who have known genetics, and this civilizes the hive,” Kent explained.
Kent recently moved an established colony of about 20,000 bees from an older home in Burleson to his own backyard. Surrounded by a weeping cherry, various herbs and other flowers in the neighborhood, the bees have contentedly set up house in the medium super hive on the edge of the lawn. “A deep box fully laden with honey can weigh over 100 pounds,” Kent said, who is in very good shape. He is a black belt in kyukido and spends three hours every week doing the taekwondo-like martial art. He also lifts a lot of hives.
Kent began learning the nuances of beekeeping as a child in Anaheim, a residential suburb of Los Angeles. In second grade, he saw a video about bees that featured a glass observation beehive through which he could see the activity of bees. His persistent questions and requests prompted Kent’s electrical- engineer father to challenge his young son to learn how to build such a beehive before he could have one. “I asked, ‘What would you need?’ and he answered, ‘I suppose, designs.’
“‘Where would you get designs?’ “‘At the Ag Agency.’ “‘Mom, get me the address for the agricultural extension agency!’” At 7 years old and with spelling help from his mother, Kent printed a note To Whom It May Concern, asking for designs for an observation beehive. A month-and-a-half later, the designs came in the mail. “Knowing how a 7-year-old can be, Dad would work on it for a while and then get involved in something at
the church and the project would collect dust, but I’d see it and ask if we could get it finished,” Kent remembered. “To make a long story short, it wasn’t until fourth grade, but I would call my fascination with honeybees the closest thing to love at first sight I’ve ever experienced.”
Once completed, a tube allowed the bees to fly outside, gather pollen and return to their hive, which was inside Kent’s bedroom. “From fourth grade until I left high school, I was sung to sleep by 20,000 bees every night,” Kent said. “When I was 14, I harvested honey. By the time I was done selling it, I had made more money in one hard summer day’s sweaty work, and getting a few bee stings, than what some of my friends made all year doing a paper route.”
Kent is an active member of the Metro Beekeepers Association, which mentors young people and adults interested in learning more about the business of beekeeping. “The club has a lot of older beekeepers with a lot of experience,” Kent said. The club’s scholarship program awards winning applicants a beehive, all the gear and mentoring by one of their knowledgeable beekeepers.
As a member of the Rotary Club, which has an international mission of lifting people out of poverty, Kent dreams of going to a Third World country and setting people up with beekeeping. “They could make good money selling a jar of honey,” he said.
But the real importance of bees, he insists, is for pollination of our food supply.
Enjoying nature while removing swarms and nests, Kent finds relaxation through beekeeping. “It also gives me supplemental income and opportunities to speak to people who might otherwise not speak to a Lutheran pastor,” Kent said, explaining that Lutherans believe drunkenness is wrong, but a drink is not.
When Kent discovered how to make mead by mixing a gallon of honey with water, yeast and activator and letting it ferment for six months, he found a satisfying new hobby. “Also known as honey wine, mead was considered by the medieval English to be an aphrodisiac. Newlyweds were encouraged to drink
it, especially for the first month of their marriage,” shared Kent, who, not surprisingly, teaches religion and philosophy courses for the extension campus of Concordia University Texas in Fort Worth. “One month is one cycle of the moon, and mead is made from honey, hence the English word honeymoon.”
Kent’s wisdom about bees gives him courage to approach them and is as much of a breastplate as his white canvas garb. “At the end of the day, if they are violent, it doesn’t matter why,” Burleson’s Bishop of Bees said. “I need to replace the queen, so they’re not so violent. If they’re gentle, I’m happy.” But, when they’re not, he’s not.
“Especially,” his wife, Denise, added, “when he comes home and it’s 105 F outside, and he’s all stung up. He asks, ‘Why am I doing this, again?’”
“Yes,” Kent smiled beatifically, “there are those days when the Lord graciously sends those reminders not to give up my day job.”
Written by Melissa Rawlins.