To get to Bob Hughes’ bee field, you have to drive a couple hundred yards down an unmarked country lane, and when you emerge through a cloud of dust you set foot into an area of Hamilton Township that has avoided the influence of suburban sprawl that spread throughout New Jersey in recent decades.
This is where Hughes, a part-time state bee inspector and a noted bee man for more than 30 years, keeps four hives. Hughes is well-known as a member of the New Jersey Beekeepers Association. He operates a small business, Bob’s Buzzy Bees, out of his garage in the Yardville section of Hamilton, where he processes and sells honey. He says he once had 250 hives. Today, after turning 80 this past January, he has scaled back his operation to about 20 hives on his property and in rural fields elsewhere in the county. But he still processes and sells honey.
“It’s good honey,” he says. “I’m extremely fortunate. I get good honey. It’s been a win-win situation for me as far as keeping bees alive is concerned. I have retail customers and wholesale customers. There’s nothing elaborate about it. I just bottle the honey and sell it. I’m a single person operation. My son helps me and between the two of us we just do our thing.”
Honey production is a job that takes place in the fall. In the springtime, Hughes and other beekeepers are busy with spring management, “making sure the bees made it through the winter, making sure there’s enough food to keep them going, and making sure there’s an egg-laying queen,” he says.
He also looks out for mites, which afflict bees, especially in the larva stage, and are considered a serious threat.
“I haven’t seen a single mite yet this year. I’m very happy with what looks to be a clean colony of bees. That tells me what I did last year prevented mites from taking hold.”
To prevent mites from decimating a hive, the hive is treated with chemicals, thymol, which ancient Egyptians derived from thyme, or with formic acid, which was first synthesized from ant venom in the mid-19th century.
A native of the White Horse section of Hamilton, Hughes and his lady friend, Dee, live in the house he built on land his father bought to raise plants and shrubs once he retired from the Pennsylvania Railroad. Hughes is retired after working for 30 years at the former New Jersey Bell. His mother was a stay-at-home mom until he and his three brothers (who are deceased) were in high school, when she took her former skills as a registered nurse and became a school nurse in Washington Township.
His son works in the funeral home business, and he has two daughters, one a payroll manager, the other a secretary.
“My dad bought this property and his friend had bees and moved them here,” Hughes says. “I built this house in ’59. I did a lot of hunting, and I would walk by those bees and think that was something I wanted to get involved with.”
Hughes’ home is in the part of Hamilton Township where Yardville gives way to Groveville. There are woods and Crosswicks Creek is nearby. The area is largely undisturbed; its natural contours intact, not much different from the time when, Hughes says, he took a friend up on an idea to answer an ad in the Trenton Times and buy some bees.
“I didn’t know about beekeeping,” he says.
These days beginning amateur beekeepers can find information on the equipment they need on websites maintained by groups such as the New Jersey Beekeepers Association.
For know-how on beekeeping, there are classes, such as the ones Hughes teaches in beginner and advanced beekeeping at the Rutgers Eco Complex in nearby Bordentown. The beginner classes are in April, May, and October, with the advanced class held in July. More people are getting interested in beekeeping, especially since the natural food movement took hold in the news media and on store shelves in recent years.
“When I first started teaching we had 35 to 40 students once a year, and you never saw a woman. Now we have 60 students per class, and in some cases the number of women exceeds the men.
“I really believe that has something to do with it,” Hughes says of the increasing interest in local and natural foods. “People are looking for substitutes for sugar, the natural stuff. There’s no question that’s a big part of it.”
For those interested in getting started in backyard or urban beekeeping, Hughes says, “I recommend they attend my course (not because I’m teaching it), and that they get involved with the beekeepers association.”
“For beginning beekeepers, we teach them just about everything they need to get them off the ground,” Hughes says. “In July we ask that beekeepers have at least one year of beekeeping under their belt, and we get more into rules and regulations.” The advanced class is “more hands-on,” he says: “Less classroom time and more time with bees.”
Beekeepers purchase their bees by the pound. A “nucleus” of bees to start a hive weighs about three pounds and contains about 6,000 bees. To produce honey, a hive needs 60,000 to 80,000 bees.
Urban beekeeping is a fairly recent trend.
“There are a few throughout the state. I would guess maybe a dozen,” urban beekeeping groups Hughes says. “There are a lot of urban beekeepers, but only about a dozen organizations.”
In 2012 the New Jersey Department of Agriculture held a press event on the roof of the Hyatt Regency in Jersey City, where a hive was installed practically in the shadow of One World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. At the time, the department said 11,000 bee colonies in New Jersey produced 451,000 pounds of honey in 2011, with the state honey crop then valued at about $1.7 million.
After teaching beekeeping at Rutgers for the last 25 years, Hughes has seen trends come and go. The recent popularity has advantages and downsides. Hughes is also a part-time state bee inspector. The state requires a couple of things of beekeepers, such as making sure hives have removable frames and to register the sites where hives will be kept over the winter. The sale of bees is regulated, as is interstate transport of bees.
As an inspector, he sees the demand for his services increasing, stretching his ability to meet that demand.
“There are more beekeepers, but fewer inspectors,” he says. “I think it’s a problem. Municipalities are getting more and more complaints. Bees aren’t considered the friendliest insect. A lot of it is hype. But there are just not enough (inspectors) to help the industry.”
Beekeeping is an ancient art, going back at least to ancient Egypt. We know that honey played an honored role in ancient Egyptian beliefs and rituals, because honey jars were among the objects found in the tombs of pharaohs. King Tut himself was sent off on his eternal voyage with one.
But bees and the human love affair with honey go back a long before King Tut. Honey gatherers were immortalized in cave paintings 8,000 years ago in Spain.
Whether you’re making a long voyage to a nether world, or just trying to negotiate the day-to-day in this corporeal realm, there are few substances that are tastier or more nutritious. Honey has germ-fighting properties and is considered good for the immune system. Bees products such as propolis and bee pollen are known to help the immune system and even have antiseptic properties.
The oldest fossilized bee likely dates to the Cretaceous Era about 80 million years ago. It was found in the 1920s or 1930s in a piece of amber not far from Hughes’ garage, across the Burlington County line near the Delaware River in a section of Mansfield Township called Kinkora. The American Museum of Natural History in New York City says it has been keeping the fossil since the 1980s.
Life hasn’t been a bed of roses for bees in the intervening aeons. Their destiny is part of an unbreakable caste system that is set in their DNA and, as we know, all they seem to do is work to fulfill it. Worker bees, infertile females that are not eligible to become queen bees, live for only about eight weeks. The job of the queen, which can live two to five years, is to lay up to 2,000 eggs a day. Drones are males with one job, namely mating with a “virgin,” or newly hatched queen. Drones have an important but very limited role in helping the queen perpetuate the hive, then they are banished from the hive, usually in the fall, and sent out to starve once their uselessness to the hive is determined.
Nevertheless, bees have endured. They have issues these days, most famously with “colony collapse disorder,” the phenomenon that has been widely publicized in recent years where large numbers of bees die off or otherwise disappear from their hives (see sidebar, page 20). Hughes has his suspicions as to what causes the deaths of whole hives at a time.
“We firmly believe there is no magic bullet,” he says, referring to the concerns of his fellow apiarists. “There is some evidence, but no proof, that sprays may be a factor,” he says. “We believe that one of the things that might be happening, there’s so much money in pollination these days that farmers aren’t giving the bees time to rest.
“There’s a lot of people who believe that because bees are moved so often, their immune systems are never given a chance to rest.” According to this theory, the stress of travel can weaken a bee’s immune system, making them vulnerable to diseases they’re not used to dealing with.
“The backyard beekeeper in New Jersey is not having that problem,” he says. “We can honestly say we have never seen a hive that meets that colony collapse criteria (in New Jersey).”
The legions of honeybees we remember from our youth, buzzing from flower to flower and waiting, it seemed, to be captured by children in jars with air holes punched in the lids, are a thing of the past.
“There are no more feral bees,” Hughes says of the wild honeybees that were once so common.
On a recent spring management trip to one of his bee fields, Hughes fearlessly pried open the boxes containing his bees’ honeycombs. Without the protective clothing and netting often associated with beekeepers, he manages to calm the bees, up to 80,000 in a single hive, with a few puffs from his smoker, which he had filled beforehand with pine needles and lights, keeping it smoldering with a baffle that lets in air and lets out smoke. When the bees detect the smoke, he explains, they think the hive is under attack and gorge themselves with honey in case the hive has to move elsewhere. When they are in this engorged condition, they don’t seem to be concerned with a human poking around. Nevertheless, a small cloud of a couple hundred bees buzzes a few feet away.
For those who want to get started with beekeeping, spring into early summer is a good time. Hughes teaches beekeeping classes three times a year at the Rutgers Eco Complex in Bordentown. He also talks about bees at Howell Living History Farm, which is part of the Mercer County Park System.
During these talks, there are two things he hopes people learn right away. First, that bees are not aggressive by nature and, second, they are vitally important to agriculture.
Those interested in keeping bees need to do a few things that will help bees survive. Bees live to pollinate things, so having flowers nearby is a necessity. Bees are happy with getting pollen from common trees, such as maple, black locust, basswood, and tulip poplar, and everyday flowers such as dandelion, clover, asters, and goldenrod.
Bees also like to be in the sun and they need to be protected from winds out of the north and northwest, which tend to be the strongest and coldest, Hughes says.
He instructs visitors to his bee field to stay to the side of the hives, rather than standing in front of them. Sure enough, making the simple mistake of standing in the wrong spot produces bees buzzing around a little too closely. “Keep walking,” Hughes advises in that case.
Bee-ginner’s Beekeeping, Basics of Apiculture, with Bob Hughes, Rutgers Eco Complex, 1200 Florence-Columbus Road, Bordentown. Wednesday and Thursday, October 22 and 23, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Friday, October 24, 9 a.m. to noon. $195. www.cpe.rutgers.edu.
Central Jersey Beekeepers Association, cjba.njbeekeepers.org.
Bob’s Buzzy Bees, 706 Groveville Allentown Road, Yardville, email@example.com.