All That Buzz

A tiny Asian pest is threatening crops across New Jersey. Sounds like a job for Paul Raybold, the official state beekeeper.

In an open field just east of the Essex County Airport, Paul Raybold leans over a stack of whitewashed wooden crates and pries off the top of one with a bent piece of metal. Instantly he’s ringed by a halo of honeybees that drift in widening concentric circles around his unprotected head. Raybold doesn’t seem to notice. He leans into the crate and extracts a shallow tray covered with a roiling mass of bees. They’re smaller than bumblebees—about a half-inch in length—their furred bodies the unmistakable color of honey, accented with subtle black stripes. A few dozen bees move onto Raybold’s bare arms, revealing the honeycomb, where three or four pearly eggs still wait to hatch. The hive looks healthy to Raybold—no visible signs of disease or die-off—which makes this a good morning in a grim year.

As New Jersey’s official apiarist, Raybold, 62, finds himself an unlikely warrior in a fight that threatens not just the honeybees but the future of agriculture in the Garden State. The enemy is a tiny Asian invader known as the Varroa mite, blamed for honeybee deaths across the country. As most farmers will tell you, when the honeybees disappear, so do the crops. “Honeybees,” Raybold explains, “are the only controllable source of pollination,” a process necessary for the cultivation of cranberries, blueberries, apples, pumpkins, and dozens of other crops. Over a normal winter, it’s not unusual for New Jersey beekeepers to lose 10 percent of their honeybees; this winter, based on Raybold’s survey of nearly 800 hives, the figure was closer to 60 percent.

Greg Donaldson, who works a century-old, 700-acre family farm in Mansfield Township in Warren County, says that he lost half his hives last winter, the result of a conspiracy of mercurial weather—a sudden cold spell can cause starvation—and the ravages of the Varroa mite. Beekeeping is more than a hobby for Donaldson. “I was kind of forced into it in the late ’90s,” he says. “We were raising cucumbers then, and we would have beautiful, beautiful plants, but the fruit would never develop.” Donaldson talked with other farmers and discovered that they were having similar problems with their crops. The state’s wild honeybees were dying, the first evidence of an influx of the Varroa and the tracheal mite. “Before that time,” Donaldson says, “people took it for granted that pollination just happened.” Since then, New Jersey farmers have relied on a combination of native and rented hives trucked in at blossom time from as far away as Louisiana. But with the Varroa mite wreaking damage nationwide, the rental supply has dwindled as well.

The infestation has left beekeepers scrambling to eradicate the mite, which has developed resistance to traditional miticides. Earlier this year the state Department of Agriculture permitted the use of formic acid, a potent miticide that can be hazardous to bees—and beekeepers—if applied improperly. New beekeeping methods, including the use of screen-bottom boards that trap mites when they fall off bees inside the hive, may help to control the problem. In the long run, Raybold says, genetics—specifically the breeding of bees resistant to the mite or more adept at removing it through grooming—holds the greatest hope. But he offers a caveat regarding such a solution: “We could be talking ten years down the line.”

Meanwhile, Raybold does what he can to survey the damage and identify infested colonies so they can be treated or, if necessary, destroyed. In the summer he’s up before daylight and spends much of his day elbow-deep in bees, inspecting hives for the state’s professional and hobbyist beekeepers. For a job that takes him from apple orchards in Sussex County to blueberry fields in Atlantic County, Raybold traverses about 35,000 miles a year. Fortunately, he likes the travel.

As a boy in Phillipsburg, he spent his summers tagging along with a neighbor, Jacob Matthenius, who happened to be the official state beekeeper, and Raybold became something of an unofficial—if not always enthusiastic—apprentice. “I spent a lot of time standing behind the bushes,” he admits. Eventually, curiosity kicked in, and as he ventured closer to the hives, he started asking questions. At twelve, he had his first hive.

Raybold went to work as a honeybee inspector for the state Department of Agriculture in the mid-1960s. At the time, the state’s apiary department consisted of two full-time inspectors and a supervisor. Today, with the exception of an occasional part-timer during the busiest months, Raybold is the department. “The position has changed a lot in the 25 years I’ve been around,” says Carl Schulze, who, as director of the Division of Plant Industry, is Raybold’s boss. “Beekeepers and farmers are facing a host of new challenges.”

It’s not just the mites that concern Raybold; it’s the lack of hobbyist and local beekeepers, many of whom have given up after a few hard seasons. While hives brought in from other states have become a mainstay of agricultural pollination in New Jersey, locally raised and native bees are still preferred, Raybold says, because they’re better adapted to the climate and don’t carry hefty transportation costs. To encourage interest in beekeeping, he visits schools, festivals, and county fairs, regaling audiences with bee biology and history.

As it happens, bees have a long history in New Jersey. Production of honey and beeswax was a thriving industry for Revolutionary-era farmers and beekeepers. Colonel George Morgan, who worked a 300-acre farm adjacent to Princeton College, forever earned his place in apiculture history by developing a system to remove honey from the hive without disturbing the bees.

During the Revolutionary War, honeybees made an appearance on the state’s three-pound bills, and beeswax itself was used as currency, traded for a variety of domestic goods and foodstuffs. In 1974, the Legislature elevated the honeybee to state insect—an honor, alas, that hasn’t kept it from vilification in an era when farmland is fast ceding to suburban sprawl. Hives have become the object of not-in-my-backyard protests and restrictive local ordinances, the result of an irrational but persistent fear that keeps Raybold hot on the lecture circuit, extolling the virtues of the gentle, hardworking honeybee.

It’s tempting to apply the same adjectives to the man himself. Plainspoken and largely self-educated—his formal education in apiculture amounted to a few entomology courses at Rutgers—Raybold is tireless in his promotion of the honeybee. A day begun inspecting hives in the cranberry bogs of South Jersey might end on the docks at Port Newark examining Africanized bee traps, placed to determine whether the deadly bees might have stowed away on incoming freight (so far, they haven’t). And his expertise has proven priceless to farmers. Raybold taught Greg Donaldson to track the health of his hives based on the position of the queen, enabling him to keep the hives viable despite rough weather and disease. “Everything I know about beekeeping I learned from Paul,” Donaldson says.

In the field near the airport, Raybold slips the last tray back into its crate and seals up the hive, as the bees around his head pick up speed, adding a sibilant hum to the whir of airport traffic nearby. Later today he’s due to inspect some hives in Morristown, then meet near Whitehouse with two recent graduates of a course he teaches at Rutgers—a three-day introduction to beekeeping. That means more bee talk, all the incentive he needs to stay on the road.

Contributing writer Leslie Garisto Pfaff wrote about artist Cynthia Dawley in the June issue.

Article from November, 2005 Issue.

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