With wind gusts in excess of 30 mph buffeting him, Gary Schempp struggled to check the health of his honeybee hives. The insects, enduring another day imprisoned in their hives by the uncooperative weather, reacted to Schempp's intrusion with a few well-placed stings to his left eyelid, left ear and upper lip.
"We're having a hard time standing here," Schempp said of maintaining an upright position against the howling wind as he visited hives he has at Jalma Farms on Route 9 in Ocean View, Cape May County. "Imagine being a honeybee and trying to fly in this."
Such is the plight of the honeybee, an insect so lightweight it takes 300 worker bees to equal an ounce. With one-quarter of the state's honeybee colonies decimated by the brutal winter and starved by a cold spring, and almost one-half the colonies killed by weather conditions coupled with a parasite infestation, the situation is getting desperate for the bees that have managed to survive.
"We only had four or five fly days in March for the bees to gather pollen," Tim Schuler, of the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, told The Press of Atlantic City. "Normally we have 15. The severely cold nights and snow a week and a half ago has meant that the small colony hanging on at the beginning of March has dwindled down and died by the end of March."
A hive, which is the physical structure in which the bees live, can hold a colony of 50,000 to 60,000 bees.
Schempp, a resident of the Dias Creek section of Middle Township who has hives distributed on six farms throughout Cape May County, estimated his overwinter losses at 20 percent. John and Alma George, on whose 130-acre farm Schempp has brought some of his hives to pollinate their beach plum orchard, lost two of their three hives over the winter. The couple said they lost one of their hives to an infestation, but it was mice, not mites, that killed that colony.
Statewide, Schuler said, the overwinter death survey he conducted a week ago revealed a 27 percent colony loss for those beekeepers who treated for a varrao mite infestation and a 42 percent loss for those who didn't. Losses in previous years have run as high as 65 percent for hives untreated for parasites and as low as 10 percent for those hives that were treated, Schuler said.
"Severe cold is a problem, but what is worse are dramatic fluctuations in temperature that we often have in South Jersey during the winter," said Jenny Carleo, agricultural and resource management agent with the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station in Cape May Court House. "Insect activity is largely governed by temperature.
"When there are a few warm, sunny days in January or February, the bees become more active and start to look for pollen and nectar sources outside of the hive. This ends up wasting their precious energy because there are so few plants producing either type of food during that time of year. So the bees return to the hive both hungry and empty-handed. When this happens over and over again during a winter, their resources get depleted, weakening the hive."
"More colonies tend to starve in February and March," said Schuler, whose father started him beekeeping 45 years ago on his family's property in Richland in the Buena Vista Township section of Atlantic County. "They need food to feed the babies."
Schempp, whose annual escape to Central or South America was a trip to Nicaragua in February to work with beekeepers there, said he fed his bees sugar and fondant to help them through the inhospitable winter.
"The bees hunker down and vibrate the hive to survive, and as long as there is a honey supply, they can make it to spring," Schempp said. "But this year, spring came a month late."
Since wind, rain and cold all prevent bees from leaving the hive, and the cool spring has delayed plants from blooming, there is reason to be concerned about crop production and price increases this summer. Schempp said honeybees are responsible for pollinating 30 percent of the local food on our tables, and John George said one out of every five tablespoons of food is bee-dependent.
"Human food production is directly related to honeybee activity," Carleo said, naming a variety of fruits and berries, as well as pumpkins and squash, that are dependent upon honeybee pollination. "Whenever supply is short a crop is worth more. If there is low yield for any reason, including poor pollination, it is possible that the prices of these crops will increase."
In addition to the service honeybees provide in pollinating crops, they produce a sweet by-product. As Schempp pulled bee-covered frames from his hives, looking for pearly white larvae, a sign of good hive health, he repeatedly helped himself to samples of honey.
"Ummm," he said, licking honey from the tool he was using to pry the frames loose from the hives. "That's good. Delicious."
Although Schempp's bees were specifically placed to ensure the 2,000 beach plum trees at Jalma Farms get pollinated this year, Alma George said the honey the insects will produce is wildflower.
In New Jersey, honey is becoming a million-dollar business. In 2012, the state's 14,000 honeybee colonies produced 462,000 pounds of honey valued at $910,000, said Lynne Richmond, public information officer for NJDA. In fact, the honeybee is so important to the Garden State, and to 16 other states, that it has been named the state insect.
There are 250 beekeepers in Cape May, Cumberland and Atlantic counties, Carleo estimated. In the last six years, 300 people have taken a beekeeping course Schempp helps teach through the Jersey Cape chapter of the New Jersey Beekeepers Association, with some, like Schempp, starting commercial operations after taking the course. Carleo said she expects 2012 figures to report "a dramatic increase in the number of colonies in South Jersey" with some of that increase attributable to the beekeeping classes.
A worker bee will travel up to five miles to find nectar, which it will suck up with its tongue and transfer to its honey gut. The pollen the bee collects from plants is stored in sacs and on the hairs of its legs. Nectar is the bee's source of carbohydrates and pollen is its protein.
After visiting 50 to 100 flowers every time it leaves the hive, a bee will be so laden with its load that, Alma George said, "It comes back waddling through the air."
Once back at the hive, the bee distributes nectar to certain cells and pollen to others. Worker bees fan the nectar until its moisture is reduced to 17 percent, which forms honey. The honey is then capped with wax to preserve and protect it.
In the course of their 5- to 7-week lifetime, worker bees will visit 2.5 million flowers and will fly 52,000 miles to produce one pound of honey, Schempp said. From the time the bee emerges after a 21-day incubation period, it works cleaning cells, feeding others, grooming the queen bee, guarding the entrance to the hive and foraging.
"They're not like our kids, who sit around and play video games for the first 10 years," Schempp said. "After 35, 45 days, the bee is done. She's worked herself to death."
That's all the honeybee wants this year, too: Weather that improves enough so she has the chance to leave the hive and work herself into an early grave.