OAKVILLE — Beekeeper Cathy Wolko loves her job. She also loves history, particularly local history about Watertown and Oakville.
To satisfy both passions, she established The Humble Bee and the Hive @ the Old Pin Shops in Oakville, inside one of the former Scoville Manufacturing buildings. The store, a combination of a one-woman industry, classroom and retail business, opened in 2020.
The store sells Wolko’s many varieties of honey, honey- and beeswax-infused face creams and lotions, seasonings, and local merchandise from makers and artists in and around Watertown. She joined the Litchfield County Farm Bureau, gaining more knowledge and meeting makers of yarn, dried fruits, artwork, antiques, sweets, jewelry and other unique gifts and collectibles.
“I like selling local — there’s a story behind each thing, and you learn more about people’s families and their history in the area,” Wolko said.
Some of Wolko’s own treasures are displayed in the shop — collections of rare Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera milk glasses, a rocking chair commode, old tables, a Masonic desk, a vintage wood-cabinet radio that still works.
And arranged among those many treasures are her own products, as well — jars of honey, light to dark, some sold with the honeycomb inside, others loaded with pungent garlic for grilling. There are honey straws for a sweet treat or to stir into a beverage, and mugs and teas. A bin with her 19 flavors of honey lip balm stand near the cash register.
There are signs and posters for those who really love bees.
In the midst of the retail store stands a hive, filled with the fluttering wings and striped forms of bees that live between two clear panels, protecting their queen and making honey.
“If you put your hand against it, you can feel the heat coming from them,” Wolko said affectionately. “The queen’s in there; she’s been moving around a lot today. She has a white spot on her back.”
Wolko’s kitchen in the rear of the store is equipped with a gas range and another longer table, where she holds classes, makes her creams and jars her honey. In a corner, a large honey strainer and other containers, some still sticky from a recent batch, await the next round.
A former nurse aide and medical assistant, Wolko always was interested in farming honey and caring for bees. Her father, Charlie Mitrik, also was a beekeeper. She kept his original equipment — honey suits, head coverings, jars and a heavy-duty strainer — and realized in the mid-2000s that she wanted to pursue beekeeping in earnest.
“I am a full-time beekeeper since 2006,” she said, “I had a few hives at first, but I have between 35 and 40 now. My dad had bees, but he also worked for Uniroyal Chemical Co., and Timex. He also delivered newspapers, and saw an ad one day for bees. He brought home a box of them, and a friend of his got him started on a farm in Watertown. That’s where he went for his beekeeping supplies.
“It just grew from there, and I saved his supplies and equipment,” she said. “The farm store and honey house are in this factory building, that’s affectionately called the Old Pin Shops.”
When her store opened, the community responded in a surprising way.
“People just brought me things — old photographs, pins from the factory, and beekeeping stuff,” Wolko said. “A woman donated a wiring board (used in a hive) for the bees, and a smoker and veils. Every time someone comes in, it seems like they recognize something from the past in here.”
Her collection of memorabilia is also a salute to her parents. Standing on a shelf along with his honey supplies is a large framed photo of Mitrik; another one of her mother, Joanne, hangs in the kitchen. Both served in the Air Force and lived in Watertown.
“Dad loved beekeeping, and he gave a lot of it away and didn’t charge for it,” Wolko said. “He’d leave jars out in front of his shed, and people would come and take them and leave fruits and vegetables for it. He bartered a lot of his honey away.”
Wolko does the work herself, from managing her hives at certain locations, holding classes for children and adults and, more recently, taking speaking engagements with garden clubs and farming organizations. She has amassed a library of handouts — recipe cards for her honeys, educational pamphlets on beekeeping, conservation and farming, and information about her local artists and makers featured in the shop.
In the last decade, the plight of the honeybee has made international news, as its numbers began to decline. Parasitic mites and problems with queen bees were cited as the primary reasons colonies were lost, according to a story from mprnews.org this year.
Environmentalists also point to pesticides and gardening habits as the main reasons for the bees’ fate. Wolko has videos playing in the store that show scientists and explorers looking at the habits and populations of bees and other winged creatures, such as the lightning bug, which also is declining, she said.
“Lightning bugs burrow under dead leaves and stay there for year,” she said. “If everyone blows their leaves away, they don’t have a place to that, and that may be a reason why we aren’t seeing them as much. If you let your leaves lie on the lawn over the winter, you’re protecting them.
“As a beekeeper, I’m an absolute advocate for bees,” she said. “I tell people to grow gardens, not lawns. I help people be more conscientious about what they’re planting, and how it can make a difference. The thing is, people don’t pay attention to something until they don’t see it anymore — like lightning bugs.”
She said beekeeping is growing in popularity. “There’s a bigger push now, because people want to support their native populations. I think there’s at least 24 species in Connecticut alone.
“The parasites like varroa mites are a cause of colony collapse, and pesticides and fungicides play a part, too. Genetically modified seeds (and pre-treated plants) don’t attract insects, so you’re not helping the environment by using them,” Wolko said. “These are the kinds of information I want to share with people, and what I talk to garden clubs about.”
Her store will continue to be a vehicle for her many efforts at the Humble Bee. “This space in the Old Pin Shops allows me to do everything in one place,” Wolko said. “It’s different every day.”
The Humble Bee and the Hive@ the Old Pin Shops is located at 20 Main Street, Oakville. Learn more at www.humblebeehoney
the-hive-at-the-pin, or email email@example.com.