A Businessman Who Fell in Love with Beekeeping

Joe Lelinho's Hilltop Honey helps corporations, hospitals and hotels become better environmental citizens—and tasty places to work or visit.

Beekeeper Joe Lelinho tends to his hives at the Somerset campus of Ethicon, a maker of medical devices. Lelinho spent 20 years in corporate finance before getting the bug for bees. Photo by Christopher Lane

In a quiet, grassy courtyard surrounded by three-story office buildings, beekeeper Joe Lelinho zips up his white jacket, flips the hood with its mesh face shield over his head, and lifts the cover off the top drawer of one of four beehives he maintains at this location—the Somerset campus of Ethicon, a maker of medical devices. There is an audible buzz as Lelinho’s bees go about their job of making honey. 

Lelinho’s business, Hilltop Honey, based in North Caldwell, sells honey along with hand creams, lip balms and candles he makes from beeswax. He maintains more than 80 colonies of bees in five New Jersey counties, some at residences, some for corporate clients (like Ethicon and Realogy), hotels (Wyndham Hotels & Resorts and Hyatt Regency Jersey City) and medical centers (Chilton in Pompton Plains, Overlook in Summit and Morristown Medical Center). He also maintains the observation hive and two rooftop colonies at Liberty Science Center. 

Lelinho spent 20 years working in corporate finance before being smitten by bees and transitioning into beekeeping in 1995. Given his background, he is comfortable in the no-man’s land between environmentalism and corporate America. “I stand in the gap,” Lelinho says. “You have all the environmentalists who hate the corporations, and all these corporations who are trying to reach out to them. I’m in the middle with my bees.” 

With honeybee numbers decreasing worldwide due to the parasitic varroa mite, pesticide use and habitat loss, corporations with space to spare and an interest in protecting the environment, along with the money to do so, are a boon to bees and beekeepers. Ethicon, a division of Johnson & Johnson, has been a Hilltop Honey client since 2013. “Protecting the environment is part of our company credo,” says Heidi Hoelper, an Ethicon environmental health and safety specialist. “We wanted to help with the plight of the honeybees and loved the idea of having an annual harvest of honey for our employees.” 

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Ethicon sells the honey from its hives to its employees, then donates the proceeds to charity. Hyatt incorporates honey into the menu selections at its restaurant, Vu, and its companion lounge. Overlook sells the honey in its gift shop, incorporates it into foods cooked in its cafeteria, and made it available during Rosh Hashanah for patients, visitors and staff.

Each of Lelinho’s hives produces 5 to 7 gallons of honey a year. Some clients seek honey for its health benefits, like treating seasonal allergies. (Honey contains traces of the local flower pollen used to create it; repeated exposure can act like a natural allergy shot.) Honey is also antibiotic, antifungal, antiseptic, and loaded with phytonutrients and antioxidants. “Honey does not support bacteria, so you can eat it and not worry about your teeth, and you can use it as medicine on a cut or burn,” Lelinho says. “Whatever honey touches, it heals.”

It’s also delicious. Lelinho likes his clients to get “the flavor of the season.” Color and flavor vary based on the types of pollen the bees are collecting, from lighter and more delicate clover honey in the spring to darker and heavier with Japanese bamboo in the fall. Honeybees fly up to five miles from their hives, pollinating as they go, so institutions that house colonies are also providing a benefit to their neighbors.

“The hive is a three-legged stool with the queen, the worker and the drone, and none is more important than the other,” Lelinho says. “You need them all, and it’s that way with the business I’m in. The bees, the corporations and the environmentalists all need each other to keep things on a balanced keel.”

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