Is that a Beekeeper in Your Backyard?

A hand holding a little box

What do a public defender, a maintenance man, a flavor scientist, a corrections officer, a playwright, a nurse and an interior designer have in common? They’re all budding beekeepers in New Jersey.

The practice of beekeeping goes back thousands of years, and at least in the Garden State, interest still seems strong. Residents from towns all over the state and from nearly as many professions have caught the buzz in recent years.

Initially I just wanted to have a greener yard, a greener lifestyle,” said Seth Belson, a Cherry Hill resident and attorney with the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender. But, he said, “As you get into beekeeping, there are more and more aspects that fascinate you.

For Belson, 47, that fascination led him from a “Beekeeping for Dummies” book and one hive in 2006 to his role as president of the New Jersey Beekeepers Association. Along the way, Belson enrolled in the popular Bee-ginner’s Beekeeping course offered by Rutgers University’s Office of Continuing Professional Education.

The two-and-a-half-day class, put on three times a year, consistently fills up and usually has a waiting list, said Chris Anderson, a program assistant in the office and on-site coordinator for the course. Since 2005, more than 1,200 persons have attended, he said.

The next beginner class is scheduled for October 11-13, 2012, in Bordentown.

“Other than it’s something I’m interested in, it’s almost like a fun battery recharge for me to be in a room with so many people from so many walks of life who want to learn about bees,” said Anderson, who noted retired NHL hockey star Scott Stevens even took the class a couple of years ago. “It’s a great thing to see.”

Rutgers also offers a more advanced, two-day class called Beyond the Basics that covers feeding methods, how to remove honey from hives, pest management for honey bees and other topics. Interest in the courses is partly due to stories in the news about colony collapse disorder, a generalized term used to describe bee hives that don’t survive the winter, Anderson said. In winter 2010, the number of hives that collapsed rose from the previous year, according to a survey of New Jersey beekeepers.

State apiarist Tim Schuler said 35 percent of the 1,100 bee colonies surveyed died in winter 2010 compared with 34 percent in the prior winter.

In the winter of 2007-08, just 17 percent of the bee colonies did not survive.

The reasons are varied but the biggest contributor is varroa mites, said Schuler, who teaches the Rutgers courses, along with beekeeper Bob Hughes. In addition, the goldenrod plant that usually blossoms in the fall didn’t provide any nectar last year, which meant many hives starved unless their beekeepers recognized the problem and supplemented colonies with other nutrients, Schuler said.

But the losses, while troubling, are not at crisis levels. “Do I think the world is coming to an end because of it? Absolutely not,” Schuler said.

When Michael Long took the Rutgers Bee-ginner’s class in the spring of 2007, he didn’t know about all the bees dying off. He just wanted to find a way to help his small backyard orchard of pear and apple trees in Little Egg Harbor.

Long, 49, who has worked in the building maintenance and inspection field, read that his misshapen fruit – and decreased vegetable crop – was due to a lack of pollination. Soon after the class, Long bought some hives and, before he knew it, was renting them out to farmers in South Jersey to help pollinate their crops.

He remembered listening to Schuler in class say some in the audience would become pollinators. “I was thinking, ‘Not me,’” Long said. “Well, that’s what happened!”

Long now operates Uriah Creek Apiaries and manages about 60 to 70 hives, along with producing more than 1,000 pounds of honey a year. He’s taken not only the Bee-ginner’s class from Rutgers, but also the advanced course and one on the business aspects of beekeeping.

Belson, meanwhile, has become synonymous with bees in his circle. In the courtroom, he said, judges ask him how the bees are doing that week.

And outside of work, he spends his free time lecturing to elementary schools, community groups and others about beekeeping. Belson shares bits of bee trivia, including that it takes nectar from 2 million flowers and requires 55 miles of flying for bees to make one pound of honey.

“Beekeeping has really changed my life for the positive,” he said, noting he’s met many new people and learned many new things since starting. “I know all is well with the world when I walk out to my yard and see them flying.

- Greg Saitz

Learn more about Beekeeping Courses at Rutgers Agricultural Experiment Station.

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