2008-07-24 / Front Page
The buzz about honeybees
Threatened state insect necessary for ecosystem and agriculture
They thrived with the dinosaurs, ancient Egyptians and even New Jerseyans for a while, but honeybees now face numerous threats to their survival.
If the insects ever become extinct, society wouldn't just miss them for the sweet and viscous honey they produce, because they are important pollinators that crops, fruits and wildflowers depend on. Therefore, honeybees are indispensable for sustainable and profitable agriculture and for the maintenance of the entire ecosystem.
In today's society, numerous pathogens, including viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites, are killing bees off in swarms to the point where they can no longer exist on their own in the wild. Scientists do not yet understand the molecular pathogens of most of the diseases affecting the bees, which is hampering the development of new ideas for preventing and combating them. However, research is being done all over the world, including Rutgers University in New Brunswick, regarding how to maintain these pollinators in a human-dominated ecosystem.
Rachel Winfree recently joined Rutgers University to research how bees' pollination services vary with the extent of suburban and urban development in the surrounding landscape. She is also helping to research how the ecosystem in general would function with a massive loss of bees. The results of these studies will be used to help New Jersey landowners develop pollinator-friendly plantings to help perpetuate the species.
While scientists like Winfree work on solving the species' ailments, beekeepers like Anna and Angelo Trapani, of Millstone, and over 400 others statewide maintain colonies, commonly called hives, not only to collect honey and beeswax, but for the purpose of pollinating crops and producing more honeybees.
The Trapanis, who operate Trapper's Honey on their 20-acre farm in the Clarksburg section of Millstone, raise Carniolan bees, which is a subspecies of honeybees known for being gentle and good at wintering. The common honeybee, which is found worldwide, consists of a number subspecies that have different characteristics and temperaments. For further example, Italian bees are also generally gentle, whereas German bees tend to be aggressive.
The Millstone couple is not only carrying on a tradition that has existed for years in Anna's family, but also one that first appeared in ancient Egypt around 2500 B.C. Ancient Egyptians are believed to have kept bees in mud and clay hives. Thousands of years later, the ancient Greeks studied new ways of raising honeybees, and by 50 B.C. the Romans were using melted, dyed beeswax to paint pictures. Pilgrims brought the first honeybees to North America in the 1600s, and by the 1850s these insects were found across America. However, it wasn't until 1852 that a teacher and part-time beekeeper invented the moveable frame beehive that the Trapanis and others in the honeybee business have used ever since.
"It's a weird hobby, but we enjoy it," Anna said.
The couple got started in their beekeeping enterprise by taking a beginner's class through the New Jersey Beekeepers Association, of which they are now both members and Angelo serves as newsletter editor. They bought their queens and nucs from beekeepers Mary Kosenski, of Tinton Falls, and Charles Toth, of North Brunswick, who raise queens and develop nuc packages for those involved in beekeeping.
The Trapanis now maintain 30 hives, 10 of which are located on their Millstone farm and 20 on other farms where bees are used to pollinate crops. Each hive has between 50,000 and 80,000 bees and can weigh up to 60 pounds during winter storage, according to Angelo.
Tending to the hives is a year-round process, with two honey extractions taking place in the spring and in the fall. Each hive can produce up to 140 pounds of honey in one year if conditions allow, Angelo said.
"The average honeybee only makes one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime," Angelo said.
According to the beekeepers, it takes about 556 worker bees to gather one pound of honey from about 2 million flowers. They said a honeybee can fly up to 2 miles away, 20 to 30 feet off the ground, and as fast as 15 miles per hour for the nectar it needs to produce honey.
The type of honey a bee produces depends on the nectar source, according to Anna, who said spring collection from lighter and newer sources produces light honey while collection later in the year produces darker honey. She said some of the darkest honey comes from nectar sources like buckwheat. The Trapanis sell Jersey Fresh wildflower honey, both light and dark.
One of the health benefits of eating local honey is that it helps to prevent allergies created by the local area. Research is also being conducted in nearby Princeton and other areas regarding the benefits of using honey to treat burns and diabetes, according to Anna.
Anna considers some of the best niceties of honey to be homemade honey ice cream, fudge and baked goods.
"I use honey all of the time," she said. "It keeps cakes and cookies nice and moist."
Other beekeepers in New Jersey use honey to make mead, which is honey wine, she said.
Although they feel they are quite successful with their beekeeping operation, the Trapanis said they still have a lot to learn. She said state inspectors Tim Schuler and Bob Hughes and the New Jersey Beekeepers Association keep them updated and informed about ensuring the safety and productivity of their hives.
While all of the information in the world can't prevent a bee sting, it does help lessen the chance, according to the Trapanis. "It happens less than you would expect," Anna said. "But everyone gets stung."
The key to not getting stung is knowing what to do before starting any activity around the hive, Angelo said.
"You have to be prepared and know things like not to go in on a rainy day when they're all at home," he said. "You want them busy doing other things."
The Trapanis also employ a technique discovered in the Ice Age for calming bees. In the Ice Age, people started hunting bees for honey and realized they could use the smoke from their torches to calm the insects. Today, beekeepers like the Trapanis use smokers that produce smoke from burning natural products, such as pine needles, when removing honey from a hive.
Despite any sharp bite that the females in the hive can produce, the Trapanis find their bees amazing to watch.
"From the beginning when they drop as an egg, which looks like a piece of rice, to 20 days later when they pop out as a little bee is amazing," Anna said. "It's also amazing that they make the perfect cone."
The beekeepers find it fascinating that honeybees are the only insects that produce a product. They also said that it was interesting to discover that all of the female bees work while the males eat, rest and mate. The females have various jobs including guarding the hive, collecting water and nectar and making honey, they said.
Angelo also noted that all decisions in the hive are made by consensus, including the nomination of an egg to be the next queen.
Anna said it is also important for people to understand that one-third of all crop production in the world relies on the pollination of bees.
The Trapanis are advocates of buying local produce and preserving farms. They have placed their farm into the farmland preservation program.
"No farms, no food," Anna said.
She continued, "The food is also safer and more fresh if you buy it local. There's nothing like Jersey grown, especially our Jersey tomatoes."
Trapper's Honey will have a booth at the Monmouth County Fair in Freehold July 23-27. The company's Jersey Fresh honey can also be purchased by calling the Trapanis at 609-259-0051.