COVINGTON, LA (WVUE) - At a time when bee populations have dipped, there's a local bee program that's bucking the trend. And for a man who wants to become a Catholic monk, it's a labor of devotion.
Bee handler Jeff Horchoff suits up before he transfers thousands of bees to new hives. When it comes to all things bees and bringing them under control, the key is the queen. The drones and workers will follow her anywhere.
"To me that's incredible. How is it out of 10,000 bees you find one bee? That's a grace. I'm telling you, that's a grace," said Horchoff.
Grace - or a blessing - is what Horchoff finds in a thriving bee ministry at St Joseph's Abbey. This field is part of a Covington "Heavenly Honey" program that was decimated during last year's spring river floods. Water covered dozens of abbey acres with as much as 4 feet of water, flooding tens of thousands of bees out of their hives.
"We lost 16 and we were down to two," said Horchoff.
Now under Horchoff's guidance, the Abbey bee program has never been busier. The number of hives has grown 20-fold to more than 50.
For Horchoff, it's a higher calling, literally. A queen escaped one of the abbey hives, and a swarm followed her 60 feet up in a tree. He wants to collect the swarm and get them back in the hive, so he sets a trap.
As he pursues his passion, he can and does get stung. This is one of the largest honey operations in the region, but it is also a training ground for priests.
"Oh yeah, eventually I will be a monk here," said Horchoff.
At any given time, St. Joseph's Abbey trains more than 100 priests, providing seminarians specializing in everything from baking bread to making coffins to raising livestock. But the bees may be the biggest challenge.
As he rebuilds the Abbey honey program, Horchoff, collects bees wherever he can. He helps homeowners like Ken Morse in Abita Springs humanely remove bee infestations.
"To kill 15,000 honeybees is ridiculous," said Morse.
Horchoff carefully vacuumed the bees from the second floor of Morse's home. He then placed them into a temporary hive, trucking them to the country.
"I only got stung once today...that's very good," said Horchoff.
The Abbey bee man merges the temporary hive, with a permanent one stacking one on top of the other. Eventually he will split the hives, growing a population that produces honey with purpose.
And it's sweetness can only be described as divine.
The bee program raises thousands of dollars a year for the Abbey, from honey processed here and from hive sponsorships.
"It does support the monks," said Horchoff.
Though bee populations appear to be on the decline nationally, locally the problem doesn't appear to be as bad.
Horchoff said local bee populations didn't suffer as much as in other parts of the country, because this region was not subjected to mass insecticide spraying common in larger agricultural regions.
Experts say bee populations across the country need beekeepers like Horchoff.
It's a life Jeff Horchoff loves and hopes to keep on living when he becomes a monk in a place he never wants to leave.
"I'll be buried in the back with the rest of them i'm hoping," he said.
But before then, he plans on tending a lot of hives.