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Culmination of a summer's work

Bernie Van Antwerp inspects the cells of the honey comb made by bees of St. Ambrose Catholic Church in Grosse Pointe Park. photo by Renee Landuyt.

December 20, 2012
My son, eat honey, for it is good, and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste.

Proverbs 24:13

Honey is the natural golden sweetener created by insects no bigger than a baby's toe. It has been recorded in Bible verses, used by ancient Egyptians as offerings to their gods, found in pharaohs' tombs and adds a distinct flavor to today's culinary creations.

Just the word "honey" creates a picture of a slow-moving, clear liquid pooling in crevices of a hot biscuit, topping a steaming bowl of oatmeal or being drizzled into a cup of tea.

Due to bees' contribution to the food chain pollinating 30 percent of the food we eat, and their product, hives are popping up in rural areas, as well as urban sites, including Grosse Pointe Park. There, three bee hives are on the grounds of St. Ambrose Catholic Church where they are watched and nurtured through the seasons by apiarist Bernie Van Antwerp of Grosse Pointe Park. He tends the hives, collects the honey, spins, strains and bottles it for the church.

Jars of nature's golden liquid have been sold at St. Ambrose for two years in one pound jars. St. Ambrose is the patron saint of bee keepers and, according to legend, he was so dubbed because of his smooth, sweet speaking abilities.

Upon the request of Rev. Timothy Pelc, a patch of land was set aside for the hives stocked with about 20,000 Italian bees to make honey sold as a church fundraiser. Italian bees are more productive and less aggressive than the heartier Russian bees, Van Antwerp said.

"Father Pelc wanted beehives," Van Antwerp said. "I volunteered to get the bees. I built the hives and got the bees. I woke up one morning and had 600,000 animals a year in my keeping and you can't take them to the vet's."

It's obvious he enjoys his volunteer work with the bees, or "my girls" as he calls them, because he readily shares his knowledge both locally and at his northern Michigan house where he has 10 hives to tend.

Bees have a life expectancy of six weeks to six months with the queen constantly laying eggs.

"Normally, she would be succeeded by a new queen every two to three years," he said.

With the high use of insecticides and weed killers and bugs from other countries that are hard to eradicate, bees are having a difficult time surviving and thriving. Each year about 30 percent die from mites foreign to the United States or from insecticides or weed killers used by farmers or in the city, he said.

The St. Ambrose bees live a sheltered life. The hives are on a patio with the church protecting them from the prevailing winds on one side and hedges and a fence surrounding the other three sides. A fountain just across the hedge supplies the bees with fresh water. According to Van Antwerp, bees consume about a gallon of water per hive per day during the summer. With the abundance of blooming flowers in the bees' two-mile flight radius, they are busy from morning until night bringing nectar back to the hive. They work all summer and Van Antwerp harvests about 35 pounds of honey per hive in September. He returns a portion of the wax combs to the hive so the bees don't have to work so hard replacing the combs, he said.

However, the wax has to be replaced every three years due to the chemicals the bees bring back to the hive.

"The wax the bees make works like a sponge. It soaks up all the chemicals. We don't use the wax more than three years. Those chemicals don't transfer to the honey," he said.

He said Detroit is a good place to keep bees because of the abundance of old growth trees and empty lots sprouting dandelions and other flowering weeds. And particularly, there are no chemicals being sprayed on these areas.

"Raising bees in Detroit has been successful because there are a lot of wildflowers in a two-mile radius," he added.

Instead of seeing a conglomeration of flowering weeds along the highways in the metro area, they can be viewed as bees' restaurants after which they create amber-colored honey, sweet to your taste.

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