The secret life of J.M. Berry

A LaFayette, N.Y. native finds his life’s purpose in a jar of honey.

Perched on a blue canvas deckchair propped on a plastic bin, Jon Michael Berry resembles a captain looking to sea. Small tufts of white hair poke out of his black sailor's cap, and a scruffy white beard helps conceal the few subtle smiles that flash across his face.

Berry wears simple brown shoes and clean blue jeans. Over a green thermal, he wears a slate-gray flannel covered in a pattern of black and tan wolves. His pale blue eyes are difficult to read.

Photo: Erin Scialabba
Berry at his stand at the CNY Regional Market with his array of honey, beeswax candles and beeswax lip balm.

Berry sells honey, beeswax candles and beeswax lip balm. He makes all his products himself, with a little help from his bees, he says. Unlike most vendors, Berry sits several feet away from his table at the Central New York Regional Market. He never pressures anyone to buy his products.

One customer, a heavyset woman, picks up a bottle of Berry’s Wildflower Honey and asks if it needs to be refrigerated.  “Oh no, never,” Berry says sliding off his chair. “No, it never spoils. Keep it at room temperature.”

“So what’s the difference between Wildflower and—,” the woman starts.

“The nectar source,” Berry finishes.

The woman pays for the honey and turns to leave. “Honey absorbs moisture very fast,” Berry says with a straight face.  “If any bacteria gets in, the honey’ll suck the moisture out and kill it.” The woman nods and slips away.

Jon Michael Berry—who goes by “Jon” or “Mike”—has worked at the CNY Regional Market almost every Saturday for the last 18 years. Kit, his second wife, says that for the 14 years she’s known him, he’s missed only one Saturday due to illness. “He claims it’s because he eats pollen,” Kit says laughing.

Now 73, Berry retired young at 55. While working for General Electric, Berry looked for a hobby by trying various farm jobs, like raising turkeys. But it was a somewhat random attempt at bee keeping that struck a chord—despite Berry’s initial fear. “I was terrified when I first started,” Berry says. “I got half plastered to work up the courage to get in the hives.”

But Berry grew accustomed to his bees and worked his way up to 100 hives, all the while teaching himself the trade through reading.  Sometimes, however, Berry learned things the hard way. Only after the state bee inspector visited Berry’s home in LaFayette, did Berry believe he needed to medicate his bees. The inspector found an infected hive, and told Berry he had to destroy the colony.

“We’re fairly remote where we live,” Berry says. “And um,” he chuckles, “I thought—well, how are my bees gonna catch any bee diseases—there are no other bees around.” He pauses and his smile disappears. “Well, they do come someway or another.” 

Multiple bee stings—sometimes six or seven at a time—also taught Berry to respect the hives’ personalities. When Berry notices a colony on edge, he distances himself from the hive and gives the bees time to adjust to his presence. Typically, however, Berry’s approach is more direct.

“I work fast,” Berry says. “I don’t sashay up to the colony. I walk up to the damn thing, squirt some smoke around it, and yank off the cover.”

Berry describes himself as a loner, and says he quit an archery club soon after joining. “I don’t belong to any clubs—I think that’s crap,” he says. “Just like everything else, it’s nothing but politics.”

Those that do know him, however, feel Berry differs vastly from his self-image. Bruce Smith, whose stand at the regional market has been sitting next to Berry’s every summer for the last 18 years, describes Berry as a caring, generous and helpful neighbor. Berry lends Smith paper bags whenever his stand runs out.

Theresa Nabozny, Berry’s daughter, says growing up, her father was the life of the party. She remembers her father drawing people in with his incredible sense of humor.

Kit also sees traits in her husband that he fails to see in himself. “He doesn’t appreciate his own personality,” Kit laments. “Bee keeping is for slow-moving, gentle souls, so Mike makes a good bee keeper.” His even temper puts his bees—and those around him—at ease, she says.

But Kit worries that her husband needs to add ease into his own life. She’s convinced him to spend a month in Florida this winter—the longest he will have been away from his bees since he started keeping 18 years ago. “Mike, if he had his druthers, would work until he died,” she says.

But Berry knows he’ll eventually need to downsize his operation.

“I’ll probably end up with a couple of hives just to look at,” he concedes, and leans back in his chair.  

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