Part 10 of our Leelanau Farming Family Series.
By Rebecca G Carlson
Honey is the wonderful, gooey, golden nectar end product created in nature by industrious little creatures, the honey bee. Honey, mostly produced by the European honey bee, Apis mellifera (Latin name), “contains mostly sugar as well as a mixture of amino acids, vitamins, minerals, iron, zinc, and antioxidants” (Mayo Clinic). While it is a natural sweetener, honey is used in thousands of products from skincare, to natural food additives, as well as beverages. According to the Cleveland Clinic website, “honey contains antioxidants, minerals, enzymes that have many potential health benefits.” Honey has been used for millennia as a “natural cough remedy” and wound treatment. The anti-bacterial properties of honey make it possible to manufacture, “[p]harmaceutical-grade manuka honey dressings [which are] used in clinical settings” (Cleveland Clinic) to treat burns and promote wound care. With all the prodigious natural benefits the honey bee affords the world at large, it is not surprising they play such an integral role in the world of farming as Julius Kolarik clarified in our second interview.
“It is my bees…which afford me the most pleasing and extensive themes[.]…[T]heir government, their industry, their quarrels, their passions, always present me with something new[.] [W]hen weary with labour (sic), my common place of rest is under my locust-tree, close by my bee-house. By their movements I can predict the weather, and can tell the day of their swarming[.]…[W]hen on the wing…it is not the allurements of salt and water, of fennel, hickory leaves…nor the finest [polished mahogany] box, that can induce them to stay [in their hive]…[I]t is in freedom that they work [and thrive].” De Crèvœcoeur waxes poetically about his beekeeping efforts to his friend in England in “Letters from an American Farmer.” Listening to Julius Kolarik speak of his life-long devotion for beekeeping, he expresses many of the same sentiments.
When I arrived for my second interview with Julius, he invited me into the inner sanctum of his ‘Honey House.’ I felt very honored to be welcomed into the passion project of Julius and his son Justin’s honey making operations. Julius’ normal demeanor is energetic and animated; however, as I began asking questions about his bees, Julius’ behavior transforms into exuberance. As with all the farming articles, a large part of my fascination lies within the history of the person. How and why does Julius become a passionate advocate of bees?
Julius’ first connection to bees began as a child watching his father and cousin Willie tend the small hobby hives on their farms. Julius offered, “most farmers kept bees” as these pollinators perform an indispensable part of the plant growing process. “Honey bees, wild and domestic, perform about 80% of all pollination worldwide” (Greenpeace.org). Additionally, according to the United States Department of Agriculture website Farmers.gov, “One out of every three bites of our food including fruits, vegetables, chocolate, coffee, nuts and spices, is created with the help of pollinators.” The definition of pollinators, and this surprised me, are not only bees. A partial list of pollinators offered by the USDA Forest Service are comprised of: “ants, bats, bees, beetles, birds, butterflies, flies, moths and wasps,” to name a few.
Julius’ first foray into becoming an apiarist, or beekeeper, was during high school. Julius explained he “caught a swarm [of bees] while mowing the lawn at St. Wenceslaus. The bees were swarming on a cedar tree.” I asked Julius why he didn’t run the other way when he saw the swarm, and he laughed, “No. There was no danger to me.” Julius coaxed the bees into boxes (hives) and transported them in the backseat and trunk of a car for his early beekeeping operation. While many would be concerned about bees swarming, Julius explains that bees forming into “a swarm is their way of reproducing another hive on their own.” Furthermore, the sound of the “air full of bees while swarming after [the] queen releases pheromones…is music to a beekeeper’s ears.” I have a healthy respect and fear of bees as I have been stung like so many others. Julius views a bee’s sting as part of his honored duty to nurture and protect these creatures. I can appreciate it, but do not completely understand it.
After returning from the armed services in the late 1960s, Julius expanded his apiculture operations into a solid business in addition to farming. At the height of his operations, Julius maintained around 700 hives. With the help and advice from Jim Dobson, a fellow beekeeper from Suttons Bay and supplier of many bees Julius purchased for his operations, he assisted Julius in expanding his apiculture and honey business. Dobson introduced Julius to the honey buyers at Sue Bee Honey. This profitable relationship continued for more than 45 years. Currently, Julius and his son Justin maintain the Kolarik honey business by selling locally and in the Grand Rapids area.
Like many snowbirds, Julius’ bees head south for the winter and out west for the early spring. I asked if it was necessary to send the bees south to protect them from harsh weather? “No, we have kept them, [the hives], in snowbanks for years with no problems.” The benefit of sending the bees south to pollinate the fruit and vegetables in Florida is it keeps the bees active, and it is another profitable avenue for the beekeeper as the produce growers pay the beekeeper for the use of their bees’ pollination efforts. In early November, Julius packs up around 400 of his hives, a semi-load worth of bees, and sends them to Florida with help from another local beekeeper and honey maker Larry Hilbert. In late February, the bees are then shipped to California from Florida to pollinate the almond trees. Again, the beekeepers are paid by the almond growers for pollinating the trees. By shipping bees to Florida and California, the beekeepers are providing a necessary service to keep the cornucopia of fruit and vegetables across the country producing. In March, Julius’ bees return home to prepare for the upcoming farming season in Michigan. By May, the bees are placed in the orchards locally. The beekeepers and their bees work non-stop to the benefit of us all.
However, there are several concerns for bees, beekeepers and farmers: the destruction of fields and areas that support pollination plants which negatively affect all pollinators. Every year farmers will ask Julius about the bees and the upcoming season as they will need them for pollinating their trees and plants. Julius simply replies, “Think twice about mowing down open fields of grasses and weeds that contain ‘honey plants’ that support the pollinators.” Honey plants refer to blooming plants known to produce nectar for the pollinators to feed. Plants such as dandelions, chickweed, star thistle, milkweed and many types of clover are technically considered weeds; however, these plants feed pollinators and thus feed humans.
Another concern for the bees is disease such as American Foul Brood (AFB) and mites which can destroy thousands of bee colonies. According to the Pennsylvania State University website, AFB “is a bacterial brood disease that results from the infection of honey bee larvae.” Furthermore, AFB “weakens the colony…lead[ing]to its death in only three weeks.” Julius explained that a beekeeper can detect AFB by scent. When opening a hive, the smell that emanates from the hive is a foul odor. In explaining the long-lasting harm that AFB creates, he offered, “American Foul Brood is to the beekeeper like mastitis is to the dairyman.” Both diseases create devastation.
Mites are another deadly disease that destroy bees and their hives. Specifically, Julius mentioned the Varroa mite as an insidious pest to honey bee colonies. According to the North Carolina State University (NCSU) website, “The mite is an external parasite which attacks both adult bees and the honey bee larvae.” Similar to AFB, the Varroa mite can wipe out a colony of bees in as little as a few weeks. Julius explains, “Bees travel and spread” like mites and diseases spread. So as the bees travel from plant to plant, they can unknowingly transport the mites who have attached themselves. Also, the bees carry the mites into the hive which ends with calamitous results. “Virtually all [wild] honey bee colonies have all but been wiped out by these mites” (NCSU).
Julius’ final words are always pearls of wisdom. In asking how much time he devoted to ‘his bees’ he answered that it’s “best to leave the bees alone to do their thing.” As with all my questions to Julius, he answers with no-nonsense responses. He believed it serves no purpose to “over-work” the bees. Bees are amazing creatures; let them do their jobs with little interference. Full stop.
Ending the interview, I realized there is a larger story here connected to beekeeping in the area. Julius spoke encouragingly about my interviewing other beekeeping families and their contributions to the Leelanau Farming Community at large. I would welcome the opportunity to speak with more of the beekeepers of the area. On my way out the door, I felt like I hit the jackpot when Julius handed me two bottles of his honey!