NEWARK, NJ — At the Green Oasis Garden on West Runyon Street, Marcellis Counts, 24, loads up a bee smoker with fragrant dried herbs and grasses, fuel that the urban beekeeper learned helps prevent disease in hives.
“Bees like herbs. I use thyme, sage, basil, oregano, but not all herbs though. Some people mix up herbs and spices, so I try to keep to the same four,” Counts said. “Y'all better appreciate me! I hope they do.”
Counts, a recent Rutgers-Newark graduate who took up beekeeping as a hobby during quarantine, hardly fits the typical demographic in the beekeeping world. Known mostly as a hobby for older, white people in suburban and rural areas, Black beekeepers like Counts are few and far between.
“I would say that I’m square one,” he said. He said he learned the art of beekeeping from online resources like YouTube and by reaching out to more established beekeepers.
In the seven months since starting his hive, that absence of diversity in New Jersey’s beekeeping community has inspired Counts, who is now setting out to turn his pandemic project into a business called Apiary in the Sky. In the process of using seed money to purchase vacant property and expand the number of hives he owns, Counts also plans to expand a network of Black beekeepers to pollinate diversity within the notoriously white niche.
In recent years, state lawmakers and activists have intensified environmental justice efforts for New Jersey’s urban communities. Community gardens and Newark have proliferated in the name of beautification, conservation and access to green space, as well as education around food justice.
Counts hopes to popularize beekeeping to both support the health of these local gardens and the community. Every day, he seeks out new resources and opportunities to establish himself in the critical first year of building out his apiary, during which his colony is susceptible to dying. It takes at least 12 months before a given colony will even produce honey.
“What’s good for the environment is good for us. I want to offer this initiative as something that is able to create a real, physical, tangible change,” he said. “My mission is to engage local residents and anyone who wants to help create an environment where we’re addressing the issues that we see.”
During her six years as president of the New Jersey Beekeepers Association, Janet Katz, owner of Two Cats Apiary in Chester worked on creating state regulations to make beekeeping easier for urban municipalities in the state. In her words, the membership of the organization she formerly headed is “not diverse at all.”
Multiple barriers, like cost, geography and education, are likely what makes beekeeping an activity reserved for a mostly older, white audience. Katz said one starter colony can cost $175, and with the wooden frame and tools needed to keep it alive, one hive alone can run upwards of $700.
“It’s a difficult hobby for economically challenged groups to get into,” she said. “What I have seen in some areas is support from local entities, like garden clubs and community gardens, that help with financing the initial investment.”
For volunteer-based Beekeepers Associations, outreach to recruit more people of color is virtually nonexistent, according to Katz. She said she isn’t sure what role they should play in expanding access, but through regulations like the ones she helped push forward, “backyard beekeepers” in urban communities, like Counts, have more freedom to make room for themselves.
The Greater Newark Conservancy offers programs to encourage residents to take up endeavors like Countss’, serving mostly as an education tool. Sarah O’Leary, director of education, said that the Conservancy has a few hives of its own that are currently inactive.
“The opportunity really exists in Newark for people who have community gardens to pair up with local beekeepers, because not everyone wants to do their own beekeeping,” she said. “But to have a network, that should totally be happening. There are so many community gardens that could be host sites for hives.”
Counts said that through one of nature’s most community-minded animals, he’s confident that he can build his own community of Black beekeepers abuzz about urban sustainability. His first fundraiser, which he plans to launch through GoFundMe.com, is seeking $300,000 in investments to help Apiary in the Sky take off.
To donate to or find out more about Apiary in the Sky, contact email@example.com.