Tine Pahl starts her day like she always does: by stirring honey into her morning coffee in place of sugar. “I use honey for everything,” Pahl says as she pulls out a mason jar full of homemade granola, sweetened with honey, of course. “I use it a lot for baking. I’m always finding new recipes.”
Pahl has more honey than she could ever use because she and her husband, Darius Plavinskas, run a beekeeping venture called Oh Honey. The couple balances beekeeping with raising a 10-year-old. Pahl is a psychoanalyst with a private practice in Manhattan, as well as a research scientist, while Plavinskas has a construction business in Manhattan and works as a visual artist.
Their beautiful home in Jersey City Heights is full of unique features like reclaimed cathedral windows and custom concrete countertops, but the most interesting feature of all has to be the stacks of colorful hive boxes buzzing on their rooftop.
Today Plavinskas arrives home from the couples’ Upstate New York property, where they have more hives. He’s spent the last few days there preparing to harvest honey. A beekeeper’s job changes with the seasons. Late summer into fall is the time to extract honey, but he is careful to leave enough behind so that it can nourish his colony through the winter. Some beekeepers remove all the honey from their hives, which means the bees die over the winter with nothing to eat. They purchase inexpensive new bees each spring instead of maintaining their colony. Some bee farms opt to replace the honey with sugar water so that the bees survive on that through the winter.
“It’s like giving them junk food,” Pahl says, adding that Oh Honey doesn’t do it that way. “We don’t steal all of the bees’ honey; that’s what makes it sustainable beekeeping.”
Oh Honey is also a treatment-free operation. “It means that I don’t treat the bees with any chemicals, medications, or antibiotics,” Plavinskas says. Very few commercial apiaries avoid using these things to combat diseases and mites. Looking for a label that says treatment-free will mean purer honey than an organic label. Plavinskas says organic honey isn’t easily regulated because there’s no way to wrangle bees into pollinating only certified organic plants.
Pollinating the Planet
Five years ago Plavinskas started just like any urban hobbyist: by mail-ordering bees that come shipped in a box. He was inspired to try beekeeping to help the environment. “Bees are one of the most important creatures in our environment,” Plavinskas says. “Two-thirds of our food comes from pollination.” We’re reliant on bees for survival. “They’re amazing creatures,” he says.
He started with two or three hives. By the next year he had 50. Now Oh Honey has more than 200 hives in various Jersey City locations and Upstate.
“He does it extraordinarily well,” Pahl says. “He really just has the hand for it.” Instead of ordering more bees, he breeds them.
Plavinskas says beekeeping is an art. “It’s not like you can learn from a book and go by the letter; it doesn’t work like that. You have to have that knowledge in the back of your head, but then you have to go and learn from the bees because they will show you what to do.”
Up on the Roof
Plavinskas climbs the stairs of his home to check on his hives. He adds some scraps of burlap to a smoker contraption and squeezes the bellows. Smoke pours out and wafts toward the stacked boxes. Pahl says that smoke is supposed to calm the bees. Plavinskas fearlessly walks over to the teeming hives, without his mesh hooded beekeeper suit. He says he gets stung nearly every time he opens a hive, but it doesn’t bother him much.
“I’ve only been stung once, and it’s because I picked one up!” Pahl says. She tried to move a bee so that no one would step on it, and it repaid her kindness by stinging. Pahl doesn’t work as a beekeeper. Her role in Oh Honey is creating cosmetics and tinctures with bee products like wax and propolis, the waxy material used to maintain the hive, along with local herbs.
Oh Honey provides more than just honey and bee products to the community. Plavinskas works with Animal Control and the Jersey City Fire Department whenever they receive a bee-related complaint. In spring, bee swarms will often travel away from their hives scouting a location to start a new colony. People freak out when a cloud of bees attaches itself to a tree or building. “You cannot call an exterminator to come and kill it; it’s illegal to kill honey bees,” Plavinskas says. That’s where he comes in, sometimes with the help of the fire ladder, to grab the bees and re-home them in a bee box. One of the hives that he’s checking on now came from a Jersey City treetop.
Next, Plavinskas heads over to the Liberty Harbor building at 30 Regent St., a condominium on the waterfront between Paulus Hook and Van Vorst Park. On the roof of the stately building with the Art Deco motif a bee colony thrives.
Kira Dudley, who works in events and PR for Liberty Harbor, was drawn to Oh Honey. She thought that Plavinskas and his beehives could form a partnership with Liberty Harbor and manage hives for them on its rooftop. “We liked that his stuff is sustainable and that he’s from Jersey City,” Dudley says. “We like to support our community.” Now two bee colonies enjoy harbor views from the ninth floor of the building.
This fall Plavinskas will harvest honey for Liberty Harbor and hold a presentation for residents about the importance of bees. “We’re looking forward to tasting the honey too,” Dudley says. “We like to call Darius the bee whisperer.”
Plavinskas first met Dudley a year ago when Oh Honey had a vendor table at Liberty Harbor’s block party. Events and farmers markets are another big part of Oh Honey’s mission. Plavinskas bottles honey and sells it along with Pahl’s cosmetic offerings. The couple are regulars at the Riverview Farmers Market in Jersey City Heights, where Pahl says all of the vendors’ children play together like one big family. The market is a unique opportunity for Jersey City shoppers to enjoy honey that is as local as it gets.—JCM