As a child John Mizak was enamored by bees.
"I remember collecting honey bees in my yard in a big mason jar. I'd catch them on clover blossoms — you know, those little clovers that grow in your lawn. I would catch them in a jar and I get a bunch of them in there. And then I would throw clover blossoms in there so they would have something to make honey from," says Mizak. "I was very naïve and I figured they would make honey for me. It didn't work out but I was determined to produce honey eventually."
And producing honey is exactly what he's doing these days, though it took him some time to get here.
While he graduated from Ohio State's beekeeping technology program in 1978, Mizak didn't take a job in the field. Instead, he entered an apprenticeship to become a pipefitter, knowing the skilled trade would be more financially advantageous. After 30 years, he retired and finally got around to keeping those bees.
In the backyard of his Grosse Ile home, Mizak keeps about a million bees, and this is just one of his colonies. On a warm, sunny summer morning, they're beginning to fly out of the hives, and by afternoon, if the day is hot, they'll really be buzzing. Though his neighbors live close, Mizak says the yellow, winged creatures don't bother them.
"They are very gentle compared to other bees," Mizak says. He wears a veil to cover his face while checking the hives, but otherwise dresses in a T-shirt and jeans.
"Usually if I get stung it is my fault," he says. "I'll accidently pinch a bee or put my hand on it when it's there. On sunny warm days they're in a good mood like we are. On rainy or cloudy days if you try to go in their hive, which I know better, they can be pretty nasty. They have a temperament very similar to people."
From his hives Mizak harvests honey that he sells under the brand name Zak's Bees. His honey varies vastly from the commercial product sold by corporations in major grocery stores. Depending on the season and what the bees are feeding on, his honey will change in color and flavor, unlike mass produced products.
"All flowers that they go to will have a different flavor honey," he says. "The most common is clover blossom honey because there is so much of it in this area. It has a similar taste. Most of the honey in the store is basically a clover honey. But fall honey from the fall flowers will have a darker color and a stronger flavor, a noticeably different one. It's all different colors, different shapes, different tastes. It all comes from different blossoms.
Mizak's honey has a dedicated following and he sells it at local markets, along with candles he makes from beeswax he buys from a fellow beekeeper in Ohio. He's had some famous clients, including the heavily inked Kat von D, and sells his candles in shops as far south as Toledo, Ohio, and online in his Etsy store. Recently his wife started making soap and solid bar lotion, which they sell at gift shops in Downriver and Ohio.
Mizak's a small-scale beekeeper, and getting his business off the ground has been a study in trial and error.
Harsh Michigan winters have killed off most of his bees each year and the tiny Varroa mite has done some severe damage too. While he can't do much about the weather, Mizak says some new, organic treatments are coming on the market that will help rid colonies of the pesky parasites that scientists believe aid in colony collapse disorder.
He's had to start over each year, essentially, purchasing a new set of bees at the onset of each season, but that hasn't deterred him from his pursuits.
"It's a lot of work but it's enjoyable work," says Mizak. "You're out in the outdoors working with nature. It's a great profession or hobby. Talk to any beekeeper. They wouldn't want to be doing anything else."
Zak's Bees honey is available at Trentwood Farm Markets in Trenton and Allen Park during the summer and fall.
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