It’s a Honey of a Job

by Anne Holzman

Look up above the baking supplies at Hampden Park Co-op, and you’ll see the golden glow of honey jars, with a few squeezable bears and sometimes boxed chunks of honey-drenched beeswax.

And talk about local—Kern honey comes from hives in Burnsville and Shakopee and is processed and packaged at Jerry and Alice Kern’s St. Paul home, 2159 Dayton Avenue.

They’ve been at it since about 1980, Jerry Kern said in a recent interview. He said his wife and partner, Alice Kern, ran a drapery business for many years, as well.

Their children own Kern Landscape Resources, on Pierce Butler in the Hamline neighborhood, where the elder Kerns also sell some of their honey products.

Kern said he’s happy to reuse jars, especially in quart and pint sizes; they do not have to be the ones his honey came in. “Just put ’em on the front porch” of his Dayton Avenue home, he said.

Kern said the widely observed “colony collapse disorder” has made it more expensive to produce honey in recent years, but so far he’s managed to keep producing by replacing his bees frequently.

I think I’ve got it,” he said of colony collapse. “All the bees disappear. They may leave 10 or 15 workers with the queen, and she usually operates with thousands.”

Beekeepers have been reporting the dramatic disappearance of their bees since about 2006. Culprits have been hard to trace, but viruses, fungus, and pesticides have been leading suspects.

The bees die off-site, Kern explained, so it’s hard to find the dead bees that are presumed to be out there. Considering how far a honeybee typically flies, “it’s around 70,000 acres they can get lost in,” he said.

According to the Pesticide Action Network of North America, it is now clear that pesticides are a central cause of the honeybee’s “colony collapse disorder” observed worldwide in recent years.

Pesticides and Honey Bees: State of the Science,” a PAN report released last May, attempts to break a “logjam” in a debate polarized between environmentalists and the pesticide industry that has hamstrung public policy.

By our analysis, the weight of evidence demonstrates that pesticides are indeed key in explaining honey bee declines, both directly and in tandem with the other two leading factors, pathogens and poor nutrition,” the report states, then reviews recent studies that pinpoint major culprits, especially a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids that have been in widespread use since the mid-1990s.

While policymakers have resisted regulating the substances because they’re not necessarily fatal to bees, the report calls for restricting their use based on sublethal damage.

Many independent studies in the U.S. and in Europe have shown that small amounts of neonicotinoids—both alone and in combination with other pesticides—can cause impaired communication, disorientation, decreased longevity, suppressed immunity, and disruption of brood cycles in honey bees,” the report states.

It also reviews the combined effects of “chemical cocktails” including pesticides and fungicides that may only be lethal in combinations that are hard to pin down, so many of them are in use. Or the chemicals may weaken the bees and make them more susceptible to parasites.

Kern said that whatever the cause, he has had to replenish his hives frequently with “nukes.”

Don’t panic, he said—that’s short for nucleus, not nuclear, and it refers to a hive frame with a fresh batch of bees that he can slide into his hive to rejuvenate it. “A guy raises them down south,” Kern said.

We humans need our bees, most urgently to pollinate something like a third of our food supply.

Many claims are made about the antibiotic and other health benefits of honey. I can attest from recent experience that it’s hard to beat for making a sore throat feel better.

Kern said that due to the wide range of a honeybee’s flight, he’s skeptical of labels that specify a blossom such as clover as the honey’s source.

He said the claims concerning pollen content are more reliable, but he doesn’t try to grade or sort his honey.

It’s a time-consuming thing,” he said, “and then you have to get more money for your honey.”

He reminded co-op shoppers not to throw out honey just because it thickened and crystallized. It doesn’t spoil, he said. “It can last for thousands of years.”

Honey’s structure changes below 57 degrees Fahrenheit, Kern said, and setting it in warm water for a few minutes will return it to its clear liquid state without doing any harm.

On your way to check out, take a look at the hive-shaped votives and other beeswax candles. The Kerns produce those, as well, using urethane molds in their garage. Beeswax candles offer clean-burning, long-lasting light on short winter days.

Freelance writer Anne Holzman and her family of five consumed a lot of Kern honey during the recent flu season.]