By Akasha Chamberlain, Point Park News Service:
It was the 1970s in Aliquippa, and Mitch Markovich liked his Honda motorcycle and the two neighbor girls down the street, but he didn’t like bees.
The tiny black-and-yellow honey-makers scared him, but the Rogish sisters loved honey about as much as they liked riding on Markovich’s motorcycle, which is to say, quite a lot.
“’Well, if you’re going to marry any of my daughters, they like to eat honey; you’re going to have to keep bees,’” Markovich recalled the words of the girls’ father, Miles Rogish.
Begrudgingly, Markovich agreed to catch bees with the old well-digger the next time there was a swarm — thinking the old man would forget.
“And that’s how I started keeping bees,” said Markovich, now 60, with a grey beard and unruly white hair, sitting in the sunroom of his childhood home 40 years later. “I never did marry his daughters anyway.”
Markovich held various odd jobs throughout the years, but beekeeping remained a constant hobby. When the steel mills shut down in the 1980s, Markovich was out of work, freshly divorced and put out, so his hobby became his job.
“Money was tight, barely scraping by, so I put an ad in the paper,” Markovich said.
The concept was simple: bee removal. Now unafraid of bees after plenty of years of working with them, Markovich could easily remove the pests from homes without pesticides or chemicals. He could charge for his services, and after he caught them, the bees were his for free.
“So I went from four beehives to 20 beehives … to 500 beehives,” Markovich said.
With plenty of bees to spare (each hive houses upwards of 100,000 bees) and limited space, Markovich started renting out hives, spreading them in 33 different areas across Western Pennsylvania.
When he was younger, Markovich extracted and bottled his honey in the basement of his mother’s home. Now with two weak knees, he works from an outside garage, but his mother, 80, still helps him label bottles and carry buckets of honey. She eats his bee pollen every day for energy, though she said, “I don’t know if it helps. I think it does.”
When it comes to bees, Markovich is sharp. He can name the maximum number of eggs a queen bee lays in her lifetime off the top of his head. He can recount the history of mites and colony collapse disorder, a disease affecting beehives.
A handyman who made a wax melter out of a discarded freezer and who has other inventions tucked away in his garage, Markovich experiments at making everything from honey: mead, beeswax candles, lip balm, lollipops and vinegar. Everything is made in house.
“I bottle all this by hand,” Markovich said. “I don’t have no equipment to do it.”
At his peak in the early 2000s, plastic bears full of Markovich’s honey lined the shelves in health food stores, mom-and-pop shops and even Giant Eagle grocery stores.
Markovich was becoming well-known in Pittsburgh, and soon his honey, like gold, would be coveted by chefs across the ocean.
But it started first with one chef in Pittsburgh, Greg Alauzen, who fell for Markovich’s honey and used it in his baking. After sparking a friendship, Alauzen sent Markovich’s honey comb to his friend’s restaurant in New York City.
Markovich didn’t think much of it, until some time later when Alauzen called him into his office and slapped a magazine in front of him.
Because of his honeycomb desserts, Alauzen’s friend, Chef Frank Falcinelli, was featured in Food Arts magazine, a prominent magazine for culinary trends, and Markovich’s name was mentioned in the last paragraph.
“I started get phone calls from people all over the world,” Markovich said.
A chef in Japan wanted Markovich’s honey comb, even though it would cost more to ship than the price of the honey comb itself. A distributor in New York City started selling his honey. A Dutch photographer, Teake Zuidema, came to Markovich’s apiary to take photographs of him at work. Bees-R-Us, his company, was featured in local newspapers and magazines. He took calls from a local TV reporter who assumed Bees-R-Us was a huge company.
“But I’m just a little guy,” Markovich said with a chuckle. “They got depressed after they left here.”
The fame lasted for about a year, but it died out, according to Markovich.
“Lots of opportunities, but I’m kind of happy the way it is anyways,” Markovich said. “I really didn’t have a life. It was just bees and that was it.”
Losing more money than making profit on his bees, Markovich is scaling back considerably. In his garage, a stack of empty bee hives reaches the high ceiling — a relic from his busy past. He operates 30 hives now.
The bees are disappearing across the nation due to pesticides and mites. It was a bad year for honey, Markovich said.
“I’m getting to the point now that I’m just going to do it as a hobby,” Markovich said. “But years ago, I was totally dependent on it.”
Now, Bees-R-Us has honey in three stores: Today’s Market in Oakmont, Sunny Bride Natural Foods in the South Hills and a supermarket in Beaver. Markovich has hives rented out to Alvauzen and a farm in New Castle. When people call, Markovich is happy to take new beekeepers out to his apiary or talk to classrooms about bees.
Every day, people still come to his mother’s home along Patterson Drive to buy his fall, summer and spring honey. He still drives his tiny white Honda with Bees-R-Us emblems adorning all the windows.
“I hope he can stay in business, y’know,” Markovich’s mother said. “Because he’s going to retire soon, and he needs something to keep him going.”
Markovich said he won’t be giving up.
“I love doing this,” Markovich said. “It’s in my blood.”