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Bees Do It

Thanks in large part to Rutgers, the beekeeping industry is thriving in the state and quietly playing a vital role in the environment. Riki Losiewicz, a graduate of the continuing education course “Bee-ginner’s Beekeeping,” offered at the Rutgers EcoComplex, is today the proud owner of 80,000 hardworking bees.
By Leslie Garisto Pfaff

Riki Losiewicz
Riki Losiewicz is one of 180 new beekeepers that Rutgers turns out each year, thanks to the Office of Continuing Professional Education. Photography by Nick Romanenko

Those drawn to the art of beekeeping have their reasons: farmers because they need pollinators for their crops; hobbyists because they need a source of beeswax for candles or cosmetics; entrepreneurs because of the honey or the hives, which can rent for $180 apiece in high pollinating season. And Riki Losiewicz because, in becoming a beekeeper, she wanted to save the world—or at least her own small slice of it.

Losiewicz lives on Osborn Island, a patchwork of inlets, woods, marshland, and meadows in New Jersey’s Great Bay in Ocean County. It’s the kind of place where the delicate relationship between nature and human habitation is impossible to ignore. Losiewicz’s backyard abuts a marsh-fringed inlet that opens onto the bay, where blue crabs and eastern oysters thrive; in early fall, great masses of migrating monarch butterflies form a dark river over her house; and in the wetlands just down the road, ospreys nest. Not that the island is what nature writers like to describe as “unspoiled.” There are plenty of houses, roads, and cars, all having their impact on the environment, not to mention yards where native vegetation has been plowed under and replaced with concrete or gravel.

All of that was on Losiewicz’s mind in the winter of 2007 when she was searching the online catalog of Rutgers’ Office of Continuing Professional Education and came across “Bee-ginner’s Beekeeping,” the two-and-a-half-day introductory class offered at the Rutgers EcoComplex in Bordentown, New Jersey. She already knew about colony collapse disorder (CCD), the mysterious phenomenon that began decimating honeybee populations across North America and Europe in 2006. Although the cause of CCD hasn’t been determined—potential explanations include disease, weakened immunity from exposure to pesticides or other toxins, or some combination of the two—the disorder is easy enough to identify: checking their hives in late winter or early spring, beekeepers will find a live queen but few or no working honeybees. Eerily, hives beset by CCD are often filled with honey and sometimes with immature, or brood, bees as well. The disorder doesn’t just threaten honeybees; it threatens our food supply, about a third of which depends on honeybee pollination. (In fact, the Office of Continuing Professional Education, which has sponsored beekeeping courses for more than 40 years, added the beginners’ class in 2006 in response to declining bee populations.)

Losiewicz had always felt a strong connection to the natural world. “I was the kid fascinated by all living things: waiting for cocoons to open, watching anthills, sitting in a cherry tree surrounded by birds,” she says. The fascination never abated. As a driver for UPS in the 1990s, she developed friendships with conservation-minded customers along her route, including federal rangers at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge and the animal rescuers at Brigantine’s Marine Mammal Stranding Center, whose efforts to preserve the area’s marine environment were a continual source of inspiration for her.

She also saw firsthand how unchecked development was degrading the natural landscape. “I witnessed the destruction of thousands of wooded acres and drove past fields where steaming piles of trees were chopped and shredded,” she says. “A driver keeps her eyes open. How could I not see?” In 1999 she moved to Osborn Island, looking for, in her words, “a place of serenity close to nature.” When she read about the beekeeping course, it felt, she says, “like the universe had just led me to it.”

The course itself, taught by professional apiarists like Tim Schuler, New Jersey’s state beekeeper, is a straightforward introduction to the basics of beekeeping, from bee biology and hive management to honey extraction and queen bee purchasing. On the last day of class, students get their hands dirty (or at least sticky) learning to assemble, open, and inspect hives, and they walk away with the skills necessary to establish hives of their own. They may also leave with an enhanced sense of the interconnec­tedness of things in the natural world. If they haven’t, they are likely to learn it over time from the bees.

Losiewicz certainly did. One morning during her first summer as a beekeeper, she glanced out the window and noticed that a crowd had gathered in front of a stand of small trees across the road. The trees had been there for years and no one had paid much attention to them. But now, Losiewicz could see, they had been transformed. Having been pollinated by her bees in the spring, they were laden with young fruit—apples and peaches—for the first time in anyone’s memory.

The bees have wrought other changes on the island. Home gardeners who’d been plagued for years with low yields or produce that was stunted or deformed were suddenly harvesting big, beautiful fruits and vegetables, and lots of them. The local garden club began urging people to get rid of the gravel in their yards and replace it with plants to nourish native pollinators. Out on the marsh, the sea lavender is abundant, proof of the circular math of beekeeping: the more bees you have, the more flowers you get; the more flowers you get, the more seeds are borne; the more seeds that are borne, the more plants you get; the more plants you get, the more bees you get. That’s because, when sources of nectar abound, new queens hatch and take a percentage of the workers with them to start a new colony. If you multiply these effects by 180 or so—the number of new beekeepers that Rutgers turns out annually—you get an idea of how potentially world-altering a course like this can be.

Of course, there’s a potential brake on the multiplier effect, in the form of colony collapse. It happened to Losiewicz last spring, when she opened two of her four hives and discovered, heartbreakingly, that virtually all of the workers were gone. Last fall, though, things were looking better. With fellow beekeeper Mike Long, president of the South Jersey Beekeepers Association (and, like Losiewicz, an alumnus of the Rutgers course), she walked over to the bee yard on a warm October afternoon for her daily inspection of the hives. Donning bee veil and heavy gloves, she pried open the first bee box and was greeted with a happy, low-pitched hum. Then she gingerly pulled out one of 10 vertical honeycomb frames and found it coated with hundreds of gently undulating, healthy honeybees. She was looking for signs of trouble—bees with misshapen wings (an indication of mite infestation), for example, or the telltale smell of the bacterial infection known as American foulbrood—but she didn’t find any. “Now, that makes me happy,” she said.

It’s clear that her relationship with the bees is mutually beneficial. She tends to their needs and they tend to hers in the form of honey, pollen (which she blends into her morning energy drink), and, most important, insight. “They’ve taught me about balance, which we need in our lives and in our environment,” she says. She expands on that with what could be a credo for her own life: “The bees take what they need. And they don’t take too much.” •