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If you look closely near the southeast corner of the Wheaton Bible Church campus, you’ll see five beehives snuggled among the trees and shrubs near the corner of Morton Road and North Avenue.
Those hives represent a forty-year hobby for Bob McDonell and his family—an interest that grew out of a “gift” from a member of Wheaton Bible Church to Bob’s two sons, Andy and Kevin, when they were twelve and ten.
It all began in 1975, when the boys came home from WBC’s Christian Service Brigade—a club for boys that pre-dated our current Awana program—with the exciting news that their leader, who was moving to Kentucky, had asked them to take over the care of his beehives. The boys eagerly said yes!
“I couldn’t even spell bee,” Bob recalls with a laugh, “much less know anything about raising them.” But not wanting to disappoint his boys, he did some research on beekeeping and decided to give it a try.
Over the years, beekeeping has evolved into a family activity, “a common interest that everyone in the family seems to enjoy,” Bob says. “That family connection is the biggest reason that I’m in the beekeeping business.”
It was G. John Morris, WBC’s Director of Facility Operations and Maintenance, who invited Bob to relocate some of the family’s hives to the church grounds when Wheaton Bible Church moved to its North Avenue location seven years ago. G. John and Bob agreed that having the bees on the campus would benefit the native grasses and wetlands surrounding the church.
“Bees are the pollinators that keep the life cycle going,” Bob explains. “In fact, without them it would be hard to sustain the natural growth that continues after each year’s prairie burn,” he said.
The flourishing grasses and flowers that the bees help pollinate are all natural feeding and breeding grounds for Monarch butterflies. Those who walked the path around the campus during the late spring and early fall likely noticed more butterflies this year, a pattern of growth that has been evident over the last several seasons. Monarchs naturally seek milkweed plants in which to lay their eggs, and each year the honeybees pollinate more of these plants—resulting in more growth and, thus, more butterflies. The honeybees help complete the natural ecosystem.
It’s a God Thing
When asked what happens to the bees during the cold Chicago winters, Bob explains that the bees hibernate inside the hive, forming a ball with the queen in the center. The other bees rotate from the outside to the inside of the ball, keeping the inner core at 92 degrees no matter how low the outside temperature dips.
To prepare for winter, Bob and his family give the bees supplemental sugar water, and sometimes cover the hive with a coated cardboard box. But mostly they just leave them alone until spring.
“Remember that honeybees in the wild have no one to cover or wrap their hives,” Bob said, “so this way of surviving is a God thing.”
In the spring, the queen—and only the queen—will start laying eggs again, typically about two thousand a day.
“The queen is the main character,” Bob says. “If she doesn’t lay eggs, we don’t have any bees.”
Throughout the spring and summer, the bees will travel as far as two to five miles from the hives, so those who live within five miles of the church campus may see bees around their property who have traveled all the way from WBC.
“But they always find their way back,” Bob says. “God gave them GPS long before Mr. Garmin came along. They leave a hole in the front of the hive, and they always come back to that exact same hole.”
A family project that began forty years ago, with just four hives, has grown to twenty-five hives, located at sites around DuPage County. And while it is technically still a hobby for Bob and his family, beekeeping and honey production can require up to sixty hours a week in busy times.
The result is hundreds of pounds of honey each year—sometimes more than a thousand pounds in a single year.
“We never manage to break even,” Bob admits. “We probably give more than half of it away and sell the rest.”
But making a profit is not their goal. They love working together as a family—from the youngest to the oldest—and they love the connection to their church.
“It all started at Wheaton Bible Church forty years ago,” Bob says, “and it’s still at WBC today.”