Beekeepers try to take sting out of over winter loss
By RICHARD SKELLY
BORDENTOWN (April 1, 2017) — After a tough year for beekeepers last year, New Jersey’s state apiarist said he has high hopes for the season, “but right now we don’t know what the winter death loss was like and we won’t know that until May.
Speaking to beekeepers at the winter meeting of the New Jersey Beekeepers Association, New Jersey State apiarist Tim Schuler said more than 500 registered beekeepers participate in an annual survey to determine the extent of winter death loss.
“I don’t really get to look at those numbers until we’re into the season, he said.”
Asked to assess the 2016 beekeeping season, Schuler said it was not a great year.
“The over winter death loss was low if you had mites under control,” he said. “If you didn’t, it was not low.We had a month of cold, wet, dreary rainy weather last May and many colonies went backwards instead of forward.
“That hurt and contributed to a poorer honey crop than we’ve had in the previous two years.”
For the first time in its history, the winter meeting, held in February, spanned two days reflecting growing interest in the vocation among Garden State residents, which for some remains an avocation.
Janet Katz of Chester, in Morris County, is serving her second term as president of the New Jersey Beekeepers Association. She said she became interested in beekeeping 25 years ago while working for AT&T. She estimated there are 1,200 members in the state’s association.
“We have 10 branches in the association, spread out all over the state,” she said. “When I first started, we had about 400 registered beekeepers and now we have 1,200 or more now. Most of that growth has been in the last 10 years.”
Schuler gave background on the state’s beekeeping industry and answered questions from registered beekeepers from all corners of the Garden State.
“There are about 3,000 registered beekeepers in New Jersey, but it’s more likely there are 5,000 beekeepers here, because we know many of them aren’t registered,” Schuler said.
Collectively, these people keep anywhere from one hive to a few hives in their backyards.
“The vast majority probably don’t keep more than 10 hives, and the majority of our commercial beekeepers, perhaps there are 10, there are four big migratory beekeepers who move their colonies from state to state, for crop pollination and then come back to New Jersey to help with blueberry and cranberry pollination,” Schuler said.
Schuler was born and raised in Pennsylvania and went to Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pa. He was graduated in 1982 with an Animal Science degree, but most of his life he has been a beekeeper. He worked for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture’s Division of Animal Health and maintained a sideline beekeeper business.
“Back in 2007, with the colony collapse disorder, and all the deaths of bees across the country, the position of state apiarist in New Jersey opened up and I applied for it and got it,” he said.
The number one problem in the beekeeping industry right now remains the varroa mite, a parasite-like tick that remains on a bee.
“This tick remains difficult to control, because you’re trying to kill an insect on an insect,” Schuler said. “It’s difficult to manage and scientists have realized there are these viruses and they have become more virulent and resistant over time.”
“There’s a whole segment of beekeepers that don’t have the skill set or don’t do anything to manage these populations of parasites” he said, noting he’s been observing higher levels of varroa mites into late October and November, “the population of mites really jumps and we still don’t really know why.”
Schuler stressed he is not a researcher, but rather, a regulator and educator, “but at the department we believe the first step to a strong beekeeping industry here is a well-educated group of people.”
Aside from varroa mites, another issue for beekeepers and their livelihoods is a virus, European foulbrood and recent FDA regulations that allow beekeepers to apply an antibiotic to control the virus.
“Now, they cannot get that antibiotic without a prescription from a veterinarian,” he said. “To get that they have to establish a vet-client relationship, and that costs money. If you’re a small beekeeper, you’re not necessarily able to afford that.”
Schuler said rates of European foulbrood have almost doubled in the last year, “and frankly, it’s the worst I’ve ever seen it.”
As the state’s apiarist, Schuler is charged with doing inspections of hives and properties.
“I do inspections as I’m able to, and certify people that sell bees, that sell queens, that sell nucleuses and I also inspect t bees leaving the state so that the beekeeper can get a certificate for the state they’re going into,” he said, adding “I also try to maintain a good relationship with migratory beekeepers that are coming into the state.”
Tetracycline is an antibiotic used to control European foulbrood, he said, and while there can be issues with antibiotics and pesticides, the person applying them “has to apply them responsibly and follow the directions to the letter.”