South Jersey beekeepers stung by proposed state regulations

Maria, left, and Bob Esche next to their beehive outside their home in Moorestown, N.J. They are sharp critics of proposed state regulations they say will discourage backyard beekeepers like themselves from pursuing the hobby.

Eloise “Lou” Naylor, who’s been keeping honeybees for a decade, nurtures three dozen hives around Burlington County and beyond.

Her friends Bob and Maria Esche set up a hive in their Moorestown backyard for the first time in 2011 and since have become instructors for budding beekeepers.

And while Jonathan Compton only began beekeeping after he took a job at Camden’s Center for Environmental Transformation a year ago, three hives under his care produced a total of “90 pounds of honey in 2017,” he said proudly.

These South Jersey residents are among an estimated 3,500 amateur, noncommercial or “backyard” beekeepers in cities, suburbs, and rural areas statewide.

They like honey, enjoy nature, and hope to bolster local populations of honeybees. The busy little flower and food crop pollinators in recent years have come under stress from habitat loss, pesticides, mites, and disease, and also are vulnerable to colony collapse disorder.

But newly proposed state regulations would prohibit most new backyard hives by setting minimum lot sizes at one quarter of an acre — far larger than most urban and many suburban properties.

How a waiver system for existing hives would work, and who would work it, is anybody’s guess.

“These regulations are draconian,” Maria Esche, a reference librarian, said.

“They make absolutely no sense,” said Naylor, a retired health-care professional.

On Thursday, N.J. Assemblyman Ronald Dancer (R., Burlington) introduced a concurrent resolution declaring the regulations “not consistent” with the intent of beekeeping-related legislation he sponsored in 2015, and calling upon the agriculture department to amend or withdraw the proposed rules.

Other opponents described those regulations as a proposal for overambitious micromanagement  seemingly inspired by sci-fi scenarios of sinister swarms, rather than realistic concerns about land use and ensuring safety and neighborliness.

“There is nothing in [the proposed regulations] worth saving,” said Dave Frank, a Springfield, Burlington County, lawyer and beekeeper who represents the 1,500-member New Jersey Beekeepers Association.

“The underlying premises of the regulations are wrong, the definitions are ridiculous, and the results are wrong,” Frank said.

Academics, county agriculture boards, state legislators, and local fans of beekeeping expressed similar concerns, characterizing the proposal as a solution in search of a problem.

“Within our vibrant beekeeping community,” the green team at Moorestown’s Saint Matthew Lutheran Church wrote, “experiences [have] been overwhelmingly positive.”

In answer to my questions, the state Department of Agriculture last Friday issued a statement saying that a review of more than 1,000 comments it received has begun as  part of a “several-months-long process.”

Each comment will receive a response. The review also will be presented to the state board of agriculture, which expects to make amendments to proposed regulations, a department spokesperson said Friday.

The regulations were crafted during the two years following the passage of Dancer’s 2015 legislation asserting that the state,  not individual cities and towns, has the authority to regulate backyard beekeeping.

Naylor and others have become accustomed to registering their hives with the state, and to following best practices developed by the Beekeepers Association and other organizations.

So they initially welcomed the prospect of a uniform statewide rather than patchwork local system of oversight.

But they also said the proposed new rules seem to have been drafted after only minimal consultation with bee experts, land-use professionals, and stakeholders such as the Beekeepers Association and the N.J. League of Municipalities.

Camera icon KEVIN RIORDAN
Jonathon ‘Farmer Jon’ Compton listens to the honeybees after tapping on the side of the hive he maintains at Camden’s Center for Environmental Transformation.

As proposed, the regulations don’t address reasonable concerns people have about, say, living near a bad neighbor who’s also a beekeeper, opponents said. But the new rules would be a disincentive to responsible people who would like to keep bees.

And despite bees’ astoundingly complex industriousness — not to mention their fascinating, if regimented, social lives — the tiny creatures that help put fruits, veggies, and even nuts (such as almonds) on our tables need our help. Particularly with large-scale colony collapse a continuing concern, despite fewer reported incidents in recent years.

“When we have issues keeping bees alive and healthy, it seems to me that having lots of small beekeepers makes sense [and] it improves the odds of survival and increases the chances of diversity,” Maria Esche said.

She and her husband, along with Naylor, showed me the carefully tended hive in their backyard on a recent warm afternoon. The colony was housed in what looked like a two-drawer wooden filing cabinet, albeit one “with probably 20,000 bees in there, in a cluster the size of a basketball, surrounding the queen,” said Bob Esche, 64, a mechanical designer.

Having been stung dozens of times as a child when friends and I inadvertently disturbed ground bees one hot summer night in 1960 — my eyes swelled shut and I needed medical treatment — I am to say the least alarmed at the very notion of being anywhere near a basketball-sized bee orb.

But I was reassured to hear that swarms generally occur when a colony is docile, laden with honey, and intent on reproducing itself, and not on a winter afternoon.

My hosts, gracious bee people all, described bee behavior as a ballet of beeswax, royal jelly, nectar gathering, honey production, and reproduction.

The labor-intensive, sometimes expensive pastime’s rewards are many, Naylor said.

“Beekeeping forces you into being peaceful and quiet, moving at a certain pace, and being observant,” she said. “It engages all of your senses at once — fragrance, sound, vision — it’s beautiful, just watching them fly in and out of the hive.”

Said Maria Esche: “They move as one. And just the idea of the super-organism is fascinating.

“They can communicate, and cooperate. It’s like a New England town meeting. They can reach consensus.”

Perhaps the good folks in Trenton who seek to regulate beekeeping, and New Jersey’s hardworking beekeepers, could take a cue from the bees.