A single bee can set off a crowd of people, who fret at its mere sight and wildly dip, duck and dive out its path. But individuals such as Danielle Larsen could not be happier to be surrounded by about 100,000 of them at a time.
"I was so intrigued with the idea of keeping honey bees," said the Somers Point woman, who just recently started maintaining two hives at a friend's farm in Woodbine.
Only a few years ago, the fate of the honey bee seemed precarious, as colony collapse disorder began spontaneously wiping out hives across the country. But more beekeepers are helping the state's honey bees rebound.
New Jersey counted 13,000 honey-producing colonies in 2010, a 2,000-colony increase from the year before. And the state's bees churned out 455,000 pounds of honey last year, a 100,000-pound increase from 2009.
Scientists are still investigating the Colony Collapse Disorder phenomenon, which they attribute at least in part to invasive parasites and the transportation of colonies from state to state to pollinate crops.
In New Jersey, the largest threat to honey bees is the Varroa mite, a parasite that sucks fluids from the insect and gives it viruses in return.
On Saturday, Larsen and about 150 other bee enthusiasts attended the beekeepers association's spring meeting at the Cape May County 4-H fairgrounds in Cape May Court House, where they learned how to prevent mite infestations and other bee-management techniques.
State apiarist Tim Schuler said Rutgers University used to hold one beginner beekeeping class a year that would teach about 40 students. The school now holds three a year, each with as many as 80 students, while several beekeepers association chapters offer classes with similar numbers of students.
Chris Hansen, of the North Cape May section of Lower Township, was among the beginner beekeepers at Saturday's event. She recently became an apiarist with her husband, and she expects to soon start selling honey.
"There's so much to learn," she said.
Beekeepers usually either produce honey or rent their hives to farmers who distribute them across their fields to pollinate their crops to compensate for a lack of wild honey bees.
"You don't take the risk of not being pollinated," said blueberry grower Bill DiMeo, owner of Indian Brand Farms in Hammonton.
DiMeo rented 128 colonies this year at $68 apiece for his 240 acres of blueberries. He said the bees are invaluable for making sure his fruit is as healthy as possible.
"From the farmer's perspective, it's like fertilizer," Belson said.
But there are not enough bees in New Jersey to meet the demand of its farmers, so bees are trucked in from all over the country.
States such as North Dakota, which counted 510,000 bee colonies last year, export bees across the U.S. to satisfy the needs of each growing season.
Many of New Jersey's beekeepers are getting into the practice as a hobby, rather than a business, however.
Several of the people at Saturday's event talked about beekeeping as a soothing exercise, describing how the sound and sight of their hives can be as relaxing as listening to a babbling brook or chirping birds.
The wasp is the stinging insect that gives the bee a bad name, they said, as most people confuse the two and consider each a menace.
Honey bees still sting, however, and each of the stations set up in the middle of the fairgrounds had metal canisters that emitted a steady stream of smoke to calm the bees.
Dave Stewart, owner of Stewart's Apiaries in Weymouth Township, said the smell of smoke keeps the insects from transmitting alarm signals and also compels them to fill up on honey, weighing them down and making them less aggressive.
For a seasoned beekeeper such as Stewart, getting stung comes with the territory. He lost count long ago of how many times he has been pricked with the barbed, venomous stingers of the bees he keeps.
"Honestly, probably a thousand," he said with a grin.
Hansen said she had not been stung during her first two years of keeping bees, until she got stung for the first time a week ago.
"Once you get a little confidence, it's very empowering," she said.
A few minutes after she said that, she suddenly jumped and swatted behind her.
She felt a buzz near her rear end. But it turned out to just be her cellphone vibrating.
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