“A high point of my life, and I’m 58, was a close encounter with the queen,” muses Marty Mendetta. “Not the queen of England, but the queen bee in my first hive.”
The queen, he explains, “is the mother of the entire colony and stays safe in seclusion. But this queen was out and about, searching for the right honeycomb cell for her eggs. She was encircled by young bees that serve her, and I felt their awe. I still do.”
Mendetta, an IT specialist who lives in Pine Hill, Camden County, and his entire family, “from 11 to 78,” pitch in to care for the hives, which produce his locally sold Amber Glow honey.
“We share the feeling that a beehive is a miracle,” he says. “A honeybee cannot live alone; it exists for the greater good. A healthy colony is a perfect world, and we’ve helped make it happen.”
The buzz around beekeeping in the state is that it’s increasingly popular. “In 2007, New Jersey Beekeepers had 400 members,” says Tim Schuler, former president of that organization and a former New Jersey state apiarist. “Membership is 1,400 now, and we estimate that another couple thousand Jersey beekeepers are out there.”
What’s more, “beekeeping is very good for New Jersey,” notes Schuler. “Bees are a critical pollinator, and New Jersey’s fruit and vine crops would collapse without them.” The state does not require a permit or license to raise bees, nor does it regulate the production and sale of raw honey.
“Beekeeping is surprisingly low-maintenance and low investment, but the rewards are immense,” adds Dave Elkner, current president of New Jersey Beekeepers. “Honeybees are peaceful, hardworking and mesmerizing to watch. By raising them, you assist the ecosystem and connect with nature. It’s a win-win.”
Like any agricultural pursuit, beekeeping is seasonal, and March is a good time to begin. “Beekeeping is active from spring through fall, with a longer season in South Jersey,” says Elkner. “If your colony is set up when the dandelions sprout in the yard, your bees will get strong enough to produce a lot of honey and overwinter safely.”
Fledgling beekeepers will need to purchase a starter hive (a “nuc”), complete with a breeding queen bee, male drones and female worker bees. When the nuc arrives, it’s transferred by a beekeeping supplier to a wood-and-wire hive box that can be built from a kit (learn more here).
Generally, nucs are shipped from warmer Southern states, but queens are increasingly bred in New Jersey. John Gaut, a lifelong beekeeper since age nine, breeds locally adapted queens in Mahwah in northern Bergen County. “I started raising queens here because they’re healthier and more fertile than queens who’ve endured a stressful journey,” he says. “New Jersey queens are ready to mate, and they pass down their climate adaptations.”
One thing even a fierce Jersey queen can’t protect her hive from is a bear. “True to cliché, bears crave honey and can destroy your colonies and your investment,” says Schuler. “You can count on bears in rural and suburban areas north of Trenton. If they’ve been seen in your neighborhood, you’ll want an electrified fence. It can be set up to encircle your colony, and can be solar, battery powered or electrical, for a few hundred bucks.”
Once set up, a hive requires only about an hour a week of maintenance in spring and summer. Honey is collected once or twice, between April and mid-July. Many keepers sell their honey to defray costs. “One colony generally produces about 30 more pounds of honey than it needs to live on while overwintering,” says Elkner. “Your surplus can mean a nice little side business, maybe run by your kids, and/or gifts for skeptical neighbors afraid of getting stung.”
In fact, Elkner notes, “Honeybees sting only when their hive is threatened, and male bees don’t even have stingers. Though you’ll need protective gear when you gather honey, you don’t need it to sit and watch your colony work.”
Frank Mortimer, former president of New Jersey Beekeepers and author of the 2021 book Bee People and the Bugs They Love, tends his hives with his three kids at their home in Ridgewood. “We’re all on the bees’ team,” Mortimer says. “The bees have a job to do. They do it well, and it shows the value of hard work.” Miles Mortimer, 19, says he intends to become an entrepreneur “using what beekeeping has taught me about time and resource management.”
New Jersey is rich in local honeys. Kam and Summer Johnson of Pittstown in Hunterdon County founded Zach & Zoe Sweet Bee Farm after two daily spoonfuls of pollen-rich raw honey eradicated their young son Zach’s severe allergies in 2015 (Zoe is their daughter). Today, Zach & Zoe’s 20-plus honey varieties are sold locally and on Amazon. Raw honey, which is unpasteurized, used for dressing wounds since antiquity, “is a proven natural antibacterial, antimicrobial and antioxidant,” says Summer Johnson.
“Every beekeeper I know feels there’s no better escape from overscheduled life,” says Elkner. “You don’t have to take a vacation when you raise bees. Just step into your backyard.”
No one knows New Jersey like we do. Sign up for one of our free newsletters here. Want a print magazine mailed to you? Purchase an issue from our online store.Click here to leave a comment