Broome County beekeeper helps stock church pantry
By Dc. Gary & Priscilla DiLallo
Contributing writers & photographers
The Army slogan “Be All You Can Be” was used as a recruiting tool in 1980. Joe Cerwonka, an Army soldier who later served more than 34 years in the National Security Agency as an intelligence officer, has lived up to that slogan and then some. “Be” has become “bee,” as in beekeeper, candle-maker and stained-glass artist.
The Binghamton resident started beekeeping in 1985 when he was gifted a hive from a neighbor who was moving. He currently has four backyard honeybee hives he tends, extracting honey when the bees are active from March till September.
At peak season each hive houses about 50,000 female bees, producing about four 60-pound pails of honey twice a year. Joe marvels at the bees and what they do, remarking that “nobody tells them what to do, they know what to do. We need the bees; they don’t need us.”
Despite being suited up with a veil, gloves and smoker, he has been stung approximately 50 times; many beekeepers think the sting is good for some people who have arthritis.
In addition to collecting honey, Joe also makes beeswax candles, using wax from the hives.
The Catholic Church has a long history of using beeswax candles on the altar. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia this is because it “symbolizes the pure flesh of Christ received from His Virgin Mother, the wick signifies the soul of Christ, and the flame represents His divinity.” They have been lit by Catholics for centuries as a symbol of prayer. Even Scripture tells us in Proverbs 24:13, “My child, eat honey, for it is good, and the honeycomb is sweet to the taste.”
In addition to tending to the bees, honey and candles, Joe finds the time to do stained-glass art and has given talks to middle-school students and garden clubs on bees, honey and beekeeping.
In an effort to pass along the tradition and knowledge of beekeeping, he has mentored Maine, N.Y., resident Andrea Barrett. When visiting her home in 1990, Joe saw that it would be a good location for beehives and asked if she would be interested.
At the beginning, Joe cared for all the hives, but Andrea got interested and Joe taught her how to care for the hives herself. Eventually she took them over with Joe’s blessing. Now that she has plenty of honey, she said she gives some of her excess to friends and co-workers as gifts. Andrea and Joe remain friends and get together most weeks to chat about bees, help each other with their hives and just enjoy a cup of tea.
“He taught me about bees. We work together to keep the hives thriving.”
While Andrea had heard about “telling the bees,” it was new to Joe. The custom is thought to originate in Celtic mythology but is still carried out in Europe. According to thebfarm.com, it is a tradition of informing the beehives when a marriage or death occurs in the family, particularly any news concerning the beekeeper.
Neither of them has made plans either for telling the bees or who would inherit their hives.
Perhaps they will follow the advice of Brother Adam Kehrle, an early 20th century Benedictine monk and beekeeper at Buckfast Abbey in England, who said, “Let the bees tell you.”
With bees, that’s probably good advice.
Editor’s note: Joe Cerwonka is the younger brother of Father Clarence Cerwonka, former Administrator of Most Holy Rosary Parish in Maine, Broome County, and now in residence as Pastor Emeritus. Fr. Clarence would often contribute toward the cost of jars for the honey. The honey was always given away to parishioners and in the food giveaways the parish did in the local community.
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2024-01-25 06:36:09 , The Catholic Sun , Bee all you can bee