For most people, anything that flies and has a stinger is a bee and should be avoided at all costs. But this is not the case for 53-year-old Cathie Skove of Sussex County, New Jersey. Not only can she tell you the differences between yellow jackets, hornets, wasps and bees, but she welcomes stinging insects into her life.
At 5 feet 4 inches tall, Skove-who is my mother-is not a terribly impressive figure. Her strawberry-blonde hair, her freckles and her small frame make her look almost frail, like she’d break if you bumped into her. This delicate woman does not seem like the daredevil type, but appearances can be deceiving. Skove is a professional beekeeper.
Skove has been raising honeybees at her Green Township home, about a 50-minute drive from Newark, as a hobby for more than 25 years. When she first started, Skove produced enough honey for her own use and sold a few jars here and there if she had a surplus. In the last few years, what was once a hobby has rapidly expanded into a full-scale business operation.
Skove doesn’t wear gloves or the traditional white suit you might picture when you see the word beekeeper. When the weather is nice, she wears Birkenstocks, shorts and a tank top to work her bees. Sometimes she wears a veil to cover her hair and face, but she doesn’t do that all the time-when the bees are mellow, a ponytail is enough.
Skove has more than 40 beehives at eight locations in and around Sussex County, including a dozen in her backyard. From her hives, Skove collects 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of honey each year. What does she do with a ton of honey? She sells it.
Skove’s raw honey and homemade beeswax products can be found at wholesale health stores and farm markets in Sussex and Warren Counties. “Mostly farm-oriented type things,” Skove says. “I don’t have anything retail. I don’t feel like I’m big enough to handle that kind of a supply commitment.” In addition to filling orders for local businesses, Skove has a host of regular customers, who call or stop by to get their honey fix, and at least five phone calls a week from strangers who are referred to her. Holiday traffic grew so much in the last six years that Skove started holding a three-day annual open house in her home to showcase her products. She serves 60 to 80 customers each year through her open house alone.
When my mom’s business expanded enough that she needed business cards, she realized that she didn’t have a name for herself. Her brother, who was visiting from Maryland, pointed out that every time customers called or stopped by, they called her the “honey lady” or the “bee lady.” Skove decided to stick with what already worked.
While the Honey Lady primarily works alone, she gets some help from new beekeepers who want to get experience and to learn from a pro. “I also have one friend who’s a teacher with summers off, and she’ll come and help me maintain equipment and sometimes roll candles. She’ll come a few times during the summer to help me out.” Skove enlists the aid of friends, neighbors and family members around the winter holidays when her order volume is highest.
An operation of this size requires a lot of work. The Honey Lady offers raw (unprocessed, unheated and unblended) honey, flavored honey, creamed honey, honey candy, honey sticks, honey with nuts, honey with dried fruit and, most recently, a line of beeswax-based beauty products, including lip balm and hand cream.
To accommodate her equipment and storage needs, Skove’s husband, Mark, built her a workstation in the garage complete with a countertop and built-in cabinets. She has gradually taken over two sections of the three-car garage, not to mention all of the cabinets in one of the two bathrooms in the family’s brick schoolhouse.
Skove makes all of her “wax-type stuff”-candles, ornaments, hand cream and lip balm-in her kitchen, “much to everyone’s chagrin,” she adds giggling. Looking around Skove’s house, it’s not hard to see why she thinks it’s funny. The kitchen counter is cluttered with empty jars, rolls of labels and blocks of wax waiting to be strained. Her dining room table is barely visible beneath cases of honey, boxed ornaments and the packaging supplies Skove uses in making her custom gift baskets. The aroma of honey lingers in every room, and nearly every surface that can accommodate a knick-knack holds a jar of honey, a beeswax candle or a piece of bee-related artwork that was a gift from one of the Honey Lady’s customers.
Skove used to extract and bottle her honey in her living room, on top of the iron woodstove, but she had to move to the garage because the operation got too large. “It’s grown tenfold, minimum,” Skove explained. She switched from a manual extractor (imagine a three-foot-tall metal salad spinner), which, after placing two rectangular wooden frames full of honey into it, she had to crank by hand, to an electric extractor. Not only does the electric extractor beat out the manual one in efficiency by a ratio of 20-to-1, it saves Skove a lot of physical labor. “When I was hand-cranking every day, my right arm looked like Popeye’s!” She flexes her bicep a little and laughs.
Skove’s bees weren’t always such a big part of her life, Skove says. “When I was little I used to get hysterical if a bug got on me. Never in a million years would I have believed it if anybody told me I’d be a beekeeper. My parents never would have believed it. I mean, I didn’t even own jeans when we moved here, and now all I want is to be outside,” she says earnestly, tucking a stray strand of hair behind one ear.
While beekeeping has changed her life drastically, Skove doesn’t believe starting a business and devoting more time to something she takes pleasure in has changed her as a person. “I’ve expressed myself differently through beekeeping, but I’ve always been the same person. I think the person I was before was doing what I felt like I should be doing.” She thinks for a moment. “Now I’m doing what I was born to do. I finally have a purpose in life.”
“I’ve done a lot of things that I loved, and I was good at a lot of them, but it’s not just a matter of being good. I don’t always feel like I’m good at the beekeeping. All I know is I just love it, and I want to learn more about it. It’s soothing to me. I never go out and work the bees that I don’t think of a new angle or a new way to handle something or a new possibility. Maybe this happened because that happened. It’s like the bees put it out there for me to absorb. It’s there if I’m in a place where I can get it that day.”
Skove doesn’t remember a point at which she consciously realized that beekeeping was her passion. “All my other obligations didn’t necessarily become secondary, but I knew that I wanted to hurry up and finish them. I kept my priorities, but it was always in mind that I could reward myself with doing bees if I finished them.”
Skove sets priorities carefully to make sure she can give her business the time it needs without neglecting her other responsibilities. “With my other job, cleaning, I was working three to four days a week, and I reduced that down to one day a week. I just found that I couldn’t give as much as I needed to to keep my head above water with this,” she explains, kneeling on the garage’s cement floor while she wipes a honey drip from a metal storage tub. “I’m hoping that in the long run this will be worth the time investment. And besides, it’s what I love to do.”
“All I know is I feel so close to nature. I feel so close to God when I work my bees.” Skove’s eyes grow bright as they fill with tears. “I lose myself. It’s like I look up and it’s two hours later, and I say ‘How could that happen? I was just doing so-and-so!’ Just to watch a queen hatch or a bee come in and transfer nectar to another bee or watch them come in with pollen in their baskets, and they’re just all working together and doing their job-it’s so organized and so logical and so comforting to me.” She takes a deep breath, inhaling the scent of the honey in buckets behind her. “The sound of it, the smell of it. The smell when I’m making candles. When I’m painting the ornaments out of the wax, the feel of it-it’s very tactile.”
Skove’s children are “just thrilled” with her growing focus on her beekeeping and her business. “After all these years of doting on them exclusively,” Skove says, laughing, “I now have something else in my life that oftentimes takes precedence over them, compared with the way they were raised-with my total commitment and time, every waking moment devoted to them, either with cleaning, doing laundry, cooking, schlepping them here and there. It’s a big lifestyle change, and they haven’t taken it too gracefully necessarily.”
Skove’s mood changes quickly from amusement to seriousness. “I felt like the only way to be a good mother was to give everything of myself to my family.” As her children got older and became more self-sufficient, Skove found her priorities shifting. “You can’t give everything of yourself away because then there’s nothing left to do a decent job. And what I found is that we all got shortchanged. There was never 100 percent of me for anybody, especially me. I was the one working the hardest.”
Though she does a lot of business and works a lot of hours, Skove finds that her profit margins are thin. “Any money I make goes back into the business,” she explains. “I buy new equipment.” She makes a face. “Well, it’s all used, but it’s new to me, anyway.” Skove hopes once she’s purchased all of the tools she needs to keep her bees healthy that the profits will start rolling in. Right now, she’s just working toward that point and hoping it’s all worth it.
It had better be worth it, because the more time Skove spends with her bees, the less time she has for everything else in her life. Skove used to grow her own vegetables in addition to raising organic beef cows and keeping chickens for fresh eggs. “I’ve given up almost all of my gardening because there just aren’t enough hours in the day,” she says resignedly. “Also, that needs to be done in the spring. I have so much going on with the bees in early spring.”
Skove’s housekeeping has also suffered. “I used to be very efficient,” she remembers. “I used to be creative with meals, and I don’t do that anymore. We try to eat healthy as much as possible, but we eat a lot more prepared food than I ever even allowed in the house before. But it’s either that or not eating.” She shrugs. “I’m just kind of tired of being unappreciated, the never-ending cycle I was in before. The only appreciation I get is when I don’t do it.”
The Honey Lady has resigned herself to the fact that she’ll never win a homemaker of the year award. “When I was in the house all the time I kept everything immaculate.” Skove used to scrub the floors every day when her children were crawling. “Now I clean the toilet-and change the hand towels. I usually do that every day.”
Fortunately, her family has picked up some of the slack as the Honey Lady’s business has grown. I make dinner whenever I’m home from school and not working, and my brothers Alan, 17, and Jesse, 15, do the dishes every night-and clean whenever the mood strikes them. “I came home yesterday from working the bees, and Alan had vacuumed the whole living room and wiped off two of the tables. But I’m so very seldom around that I hardly even notice anymore,” Skove laughs.
When all three of her children were in school, Skove started taking some time for herself. She kept up her bee fascination, but she also started taking classes at Sussex County Community College. As with beekeeping, Skove’s children weren’t pleased with her decision to focus even more attention on something that wasn’t them. “My one child put his hands on his hips and said that I should stay home and take care of them like I was supposed to,” she says indignantly. Despite the lack of support from her children, Skove found college very rewarding. “I had never gone to college before,” she admits. “I was leaning toward respiratory therapy, and then I was considering pharmacy. Then I found out that they had changed it to make it a five-year college, and since I was going part-time …” she trails off wistfully.
While Skove enjoyed going to school and was pleased at how well she was doing, she kept being drawn back to the bees. “I hated being cooped up in the house all the time. I like learning-I just don’t like learning inside.”
Skove knew her family didn’t support her going back to school, so when it came time to return to beekeeping, she didn’t ask for input. Fortunately, her husband helped a lot. In addition to building her garage workshop, Skove’s husband also helps her to move hives for pollination at different farm locations and to move heavy equipment. He is particularly handy when a hive swarms or vacates its home. The bees tend to clump in a tree-“the highest one they can find,” Skove says. Her husband is about 12 inches taller than she is, and that height comes in handy when she’s trying to recapture a swarm.
Skove has sacrificed a lot for her business and her family, but one thing she’ll never give up is her “bee mobile.” This rust-bottomed 1990 Ford Aerostar minivan doesn’t have heat or air conditioning. When the temperature rises above 85°F, the turn signals stop working and Skove has to use manual hand signals. That is, when she can get the power windows to roll down. And it’s a good thing all of the backseats are covered in bee equipment, because the sliding door handle fell off months ago. “The only way I’d get a new bee mobile is if this one rusted all the way through, and the bees started coming in through the floor.” She thinks for a minute, considering how long that will take. “We’ll see,” she says, her eyes twinkling. “It would be a travesty to do this much damage to a decent car. At least this way I don’t have to worry about hurting it.” Skove’s husband, who is passing through the garage at this point, laughs. “There’s so much rust on that thing that you need a tetanus shot to ride in it.” She makes a face at him.
What has she learned from all of her hard work and sacrifice? “Don’t dilute yourself with other people, trying to be something to everybody at the same time instead of doing what you need to do for you. I’ve worked around it by now by trying not to do my bee stuff when it interferes with other priorities, with things that I have chosen to make my priorities. I don’t want [my family] feeling that I’m always choosing the bees over them, so what I try to do is everything I can for them that I’m willing to do at the time, and then when they’re not around I do the bee stuff. So I’m trying not to make it an either/or all the time.”
Skove has greater self-respect now that she’s doing more of what she wants instead of just what she has to do and saving a little for herself. Though Skove thinks others also have more respect for her since she’s become more self-actualized. “I don’t care what their perceptions of me are anymore. Bees have turned out to be not only almost my religion but a form of therapy. I feel so good about myself for what I do. Even when I mess up, I just feel so good about myself it doesn’t matter. I’ve gotten rid of negativity in my life because anybody who can do what I do and learn what I learn from God’s creation-what more could you ask for? What more could you want out of life? I just love it. I really do.”
This article originally appeared in The Newark Metro under the byline Kristen Skove in 2002.