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For Bees’ Sake!

Princeton Lavender. (Photo courtesy of Princeton Lavender)

Why These Industrious Pollinators are Sacred to Our Food System and Ecological Health

By Taylor Smith 

When settlers from England brought the first honeybees to North America in 1622 (blog.education.nationalgeographic.org), the area was already populated by thousands of different species of bees. Some of these native species functioned as solitary insects where female bees would search for pollen and raise their young as a solitary unit, rather than part of a hive.

Today, New Jersey’s apiarists all work with the descendants of European honeybees. These bees are used to pollinate the state’s fruits, vegetables, trees, and flowers. Without these industrious insects the human food system as we know it would fall apart. Unfortunately, bees are under attack from pesticides, insecticides, and disease (specifically varroa mites imported from Asia). Thanks to the committed work of state apiarists, the honeybee continues to survive. It does make one realize that our food system is a fragile balance of man and pollinators. While butterflies and other forms of bees do in fact pollinate crops and flowers, none are as efficient and hardworking as a hive of honeybees who, in no uncertain terms, literally work themselves to death each summer season.

Brad Smith of Princeton Lavender bought his farm property at 3741 Lawrenceville Road in Princeton with his wife Beth back in 2015. They began to grow lavender in 2016 and gradually added more and more farm elements including bees, chickens, alpacas, and goats. While Smith initially tried his own hand at beekeeping, he struggled to maintain the hives through the winter months and soon employed the help of Mill Creek Apiary in Medford. Smith likes to refer to Mill Creek owner Jason Shoff as the “beeman.”

Mill Creek Apiary owner Jason Shoff in bee suit. (Photos courtesy of Mill Creek Apiary)

During the warmer months, Mill Creek services Smith’s colonies every two to four weeks. “They’re actively in the hives, which are kept on our farm,” says Smith. “Some seasons they’re feeding the hives and other times they are testing to make sure the hive is clean. They check on health, making sure that the queen is healthy. A good queen should lay 1,000 eggs per day.”

While Mill Creek doesn’t visit the farm from November 30 through March 1 (which is considered the winter season in New Jersey), the apiarists do a great job of maintaining Smith’s colonies during the freezing temperatures. “A good apiary can build the hives and sustain them throughout the year,” he says. “That is what Mill Creek does.”

When asked why bees are so significant to the farm’s production of lavender, Smith explains, “The bees are central. They increase the production of flowers and allow for the plants to be healthier. They also produce amazing honey from the flowers, which we sell at Princeton Lavender. I always see the bees on the plants. They are just working all the time. They are gentle creatures. I have never seen them sting a farm animal — ever.”

So, what is the difference between natural raw honey like that sold at Princeton Lavender and generic honey that can be purchased at a grocery store? Raw honey is not pasteurized. With pasteurized honey, the liquid is cooked to a certain temperature to eliminate bacteria. Most health enthusiasts and naturopaths will suggest live raw honey over pasteurized honey because the bacteria have been shown to boost immunity, reduce allergies, and lessen coughs and colds.

In addition, raw honey is incredibly delicious. “I like to add it to tea or hot cocoa,” says Smith. “I also use it on charcuterie boards or a slice of toast with peanut butter.”

For those interested in starting their own hobby bee colony, Smith suggests beginning with some basic research. “Many New Jersey businesses can sell you a NUC (a nucleus colony, which is a small-sized hive),” he says. “I would also recommend taking classes from an apiary and learn from that.”

It is also important to not use chemicals on your yard. One of the primary causes of honeybee death is the widespread use of chemical treatments on lawns, parks, and farmland. When you spray weed killer on your lawn, the honeybees can come in contact with it and they then carry it back to the hives. This infects honeybee larvae, causing them to die or to develop brain damage, explains Smith.

Grant Stiles of Stiles Apiaries in Fords is the former state apiarist of New Jersey. He now operates an impressive 10,000 colonies during the summer months, providing pollinators for New Jersey’s blueberry and cranberry farmers (among others). Stiles Honey is currently the largest honey packer in the state. His products can be found at Wegmans, Whole Foods, ShopRite, Kings Food Markets, and more. Stiles is also a co-packer for Mike’s Hot Honey, a successful condiment brand that is commonly marketed as a spicy honey to top off your favorite pizza.

Stiles was introduced to beekeeping by his father, who started it as a hobby when Stiles was 8 years old. “I don’t know exactly what appealed to me about it, but I know I was good at it,” he says.

Stiles went on to graduate from Pennsylvania State University with a degree in entomology. As the state apiarist (a role he began in 1993), Stiles’ job was to supervise and regulate the entire beekeeping industry throughout the state of New Jersey.

In addition to producing his own honey, Stiles leases his bee colonies to both local and nationwide farmers, which is how most commercial apiarists make their living. “Farmers need bees for pollination purposes,” he says. “Blueberries start right after Easter. We also have cranberries, apples, cucumbers, vine crops like pumpkins and squash — they all require bee pollination to flourish and grow.”

For Stiles, the beekeeping season never really starts or ends, but it is busiest during the spring and summer months. He is also quick to add that it is very physical work; something that people may not understand.

Interestingly, most of the honeybee colonies in the U.S. get shipped to California at the beginning of February for almond season. But whenever colonies are shipped out to the farmers’ locations, there is a potential for bee loss. This may be due to varroa mites, fungicides, or the use of pesticides and chemical sprays. Honeybees can travel up to a 3-mile radius, so even if the farmer isn’t using pesticides on their crops, a neighboring property might be.

To combat honeybee death, Smith suggests that people rethink the notion of a “perfect lawn.” Instead of the superficial, electric-green synthetic appearance, bees would much prefer wild plants, trees, patches of clovers, and dandelions.

Craig Tanis of Tanis Apiaries in Pompton Plains was introduced to beekeeping by a colleague who had kept bees for many years and was a member of the New Jersey Beekeepers Association (NJBA). As Tanis dove further and further into research, he became fascinated by the manners and behaviorisms of the colonies and decided to try his hand at beekeeping. He ordered his first package of bees from Georgia and has expanded over the years to approximately 21 hives and 12 nucleus colonies. He does this by raising his own queens and overwintering the nucleus colonies.

Like many of his fellow apiarists, Tanis is intrigued by the many medicinal benefits of raw, locally-sourced honey.

“Many people talk about how local raw honey can help with seasonal allergies,” he says. “I never believed it until I started to keep bees and ate my own honey. I suffered from spring allergies my whole life, but several years after I started keeping bees, I noticed that my allergies were subsiding. I now have very little allergy symptoms. So, what I tell people now is that since everyone is different, local raw honey will not help everyone, but it certainly can help with allergies, and I am living proof of that. It will not help to start in April when you feel the symptoms; you should take it consistently all year long.”

Tanis typically consumes his own honey in tea, but is also known to take a tablespoon or two when his energy is low after a long day working in the bee yards.

Tanis Apiaries also carries homemade beeswax products. Their beeswax natural lip balm is made with avocado oil (a natural sunblock), vitamin E, beeswax, and a natural flavor oil. He notes that his customers have had an overwhelmingly positive reaction to Tanis Apiaries’ products.

“Customers are always surprised at the variety of color and taste of the honey, especially when I tell them it is all based on what flowers the bees have taken the nectar from,” he says. “Each batch of honey is different depending on what flower was blooming at that time.”

Another aspect of raw honey is that it will crystallize over time. This does not mean that it has gone bad, but is a sign of raw honey’s low water content. “If someone wants liquid honey again, they can simply place the jar into a pot of water, hot to the touch, and the crystals will melt again. Never use the microwave,” explains Tanis.

Tanis Apiaries products can be purchased at River Bend Farm in Peapack, Sweetman’s Farm in Warwick, and Circle 3 Farms in Pompton Plains. He also sells them from his front porch via an old-fashioned honor system and website at freewebstore.org/tanis-apiaries.

Owned and operated by Jason Shoff, Mill Creek Apiary operates on local farms and private properties throughout South and Central New Jersey including Medford, Princeton, Jobstown, and other towns in between. Mill Creek manages about 300 hives including their own production and nucleus colonies. The organization currently operates a storefront at 1 North Main Street in Medford, where their delicious honey products can be purchased.

Growing up in a rural part of Northwestern New Jersey, Shoff has always respected and appreciated nature. He recalls the pain of being stung by bees while out in the barnyard and being fascinated (and a bit scared) by the roar of a swarm of honeybees. It was this sense of awe that followed him into adulthood as he sought to learn the ways and habits of honeybees and the craft of raising them.

Mill Creek was started in 2005 by Shoff’s predecessor and mentor. Upon his retirement in 2018, Shoff purchased the business and began rebranding the company’s identity and personality.

One of the interesting things that Mill Creek does is raising and tailoring their own queens. A very complicated and tedious process, the company aims to breed the queens for certain desirable traits. These include gentleness, winter hardiness, and good honey production.

“To raise queens, we choose which colonies (queens) exhibit the traits we desire, and we graft eggs from those colonies by carefully moving them to a special device and environment where those eggs will develop into queens,” he says. “And then we can utilize those queens to start new colonies or re-queen colonies where the queen is failing or undesirable.”

The honey produced by Mill Creek is exceptional in its flavor and variety. Depending on the location where the bees were harvesting their honey, the product will taste slightly different. For example, wildflower honey will taste unique from honey where the bees were pollinating blueberry fields and cranberry bogs. “In our area, spring honey tends to be lighter than fall honey,” says Shoff. “We also make infused honey and several flavors of spreadable creamed honey.”

(Photo courtesy of Mill Creek Apiary)

Mill Creek offers a special service in which they will remove an unwanted bee colony from someone’s property. Pest control companies will not kill honeybees, and Shoff is quick to point out that killing a honeybee nest yourself is not a good idea. First, not only are honeybees environmentally beneficial, but an empty nest filled with honeycombs will most certainly attract pests. Many times, the cluster of bees can simply be moved to one of Shoff’s apiaries and the bees will have a better chance of survival. If the honeybees have built a nest within the wall or structure of a home, the bees will need to be rescued and rehabilitated.

For those interested in learning opportunities, Mill Creek’s Hive Dive Workshops at different farm apiary locations enable participants to experience the inner workings of a honeybee colony.

“My hope with each group is to change the perception of honeybees, which may lead to having a more open mind and less fear of insects,” Shoff says. Workshop dates are listed at millcreekapiary.com. Their honey products can also be purchased online as well.

Regarding people’s fear of insects, Stiles of Stiles Honey emphasizes, “only in the United States are we afraid of bees. If you go to Mexico or Latin America, there are bees everywhere. They sit on tables, on watermelons. It’s a cultural thing we have developed, this fear of bees, but we need to get over it.”

Perhaps once people overcome their fear of honeybees and all insects, we can better learn to cohabitate and celebrate the powerful strength and beauty of our pollinator friends. William Butler Yeats imagined the same in “The Lake of Innisfree”:

“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;

Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,

And live alone in the bee-loud gale.”

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