NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - The city’s beekeepers have been pushing back against a set of rules proposed by the state Department of Agriculture, which they worry could force many of them ​to get a new hobby or business.

The proposals would strictly regulate everything to do with beekeeping and set up fees, waiver applications, setback requirement and zoning laws.

The state agriculture department is accepting public comment ​on its proposal via email at ​until Jan. 19.

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In 2015, the State Legislature passed the Right to Farm Act, which barred municipalities from regulating apiary practices, that is, anything having to do with bees.

In a city like New Brunswick, chances are you live within a mile of a beekeeper and might not even know it.

With the news of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) being blamed for a sharp decline in honeybees, New Jersey has been no exception to a nationwide surge in recreational beekeeping, often in people’s own backyards.

Many of these New Jersey residents have recognized the importance that the honeybee plays in the pollination of fruits and vegetables, advocates have said.  

The number of hobbyist beekeepers in the state has risen from 450 in 2008 to 3,000 in 2017, according to Janet Katz, president of the New Jersey Beekeepers Association.

Beekeepers like Javier Robles, a Rutgers University professor, have been watching the regulations as they progress through Trenton.

He owns about a dozen hives on Rutgers​ University's​ Cook Campus, squished between a patch of woods, residential neighborhoods, the New Brunswick Water Treatment Plant, different ​university buildings and many other gardening spots.

Entrance to a beehive colony on Cook Campus maintained by Rutgers Professor Javier Robles, Credits: Daniel J. Munoz

“The gardeners say since the bees came, we have had ​a lot more crops. We also ​have healthier crops, because they’re going to pollinate pretty much everything,” Robles said.

Robles added: “Rutgers has been great letting me have my beehives there. I’ve brought college people, seniors, people from high school, ​and people from ​Highland Park. I open up the hives, show them how they work.”

One of the biggest issues is the lot size requirements; a property under a quarter acre ​can't have beehives.

A lot between a quarter acre and five acres can have two hives and a nucleus. For reference, a football field measures 1.32 acres.

A nucleus, for reference, is a starter hive, which has a laying queen, roughly 10,000 bees and a brood (a bee in the pupae stage, transitioning from larva to its adult form).

Existing hives operating prior to July 31, 2015 would be grandfathered and those beekeepers could apply for special waiver, according to Joseph Zoltowski, who oversees the Division of Plant Industry in the agriculture department.

Lauren Dent, of Edison, tends to two of the beehives on Cook Campus, Credits: Daniel J. Munoz

A fence would be required at the edge of the beekeeping property and hives would be subject to a minimum setback from that fence.

Beekeepers would have to take continuing education courses if they want to be allowed to continue their hobby.

“I think that it’s really bad for the small beekeeper, the hobby beekeeper, who​ has​ been doing this for 15 or 20 years,” Robles said. “We’re going to let all the beekeeping go to the big guy.”

“The minimum lot size of a quarter acre, to manage bees, that’s going to put a barrier right away, on folks like myself who try to keep bees in an urban environment,”​ explained Anthony Capece, a staffer at Elijah’s Promise ​in New Brunswick ​who maintains the community garden, which holds two beehives.

Anthony Capece maintains the two beehives in the Elijah's Promise garden. Credit: Daniel J. Munoz

Elijah’s Promise​, a prominent local soup kitchen,​ uses its garden for demonstrations and personal agriculture​,​ Capece said. In the summer, as many as 40 guests could be helping out at the garden or working on their own projects.

“We’ve just turned routine maintenance into opportunities for volunteers, or for gardeners to learn a bit more about beekeeping,” Capece said.

Capece said that with the new rules, the garden might just make it; the lot size might just be big enough to allow the bees and it might make the July 31, 2015 threshold.

Ultimately, Zoltowski said the new laws would reduce the “nuisance factor to adjacent neighbors by having too many bees clustered in one small location and lessen the potential for stinging incidents.”

But Robles reported there hadn’t been any such mishaps with his neighbors. Many neighbors and passerby, Robles said, are intrigued or pleasantly surprised by the bees.

In the summer, residents from nearby neighborhoods jog through the garden, and kids use it a shortcut to get to the soccer fields on Biel Road.  

“There’s a big misconception about what people perceive to be honeybees, which may be yellow jackets or wasps​," Robles said. "To someone who doesn’t do beekeeping, all bees are the same. So that’s a problem, something education can help.”

Capece has said that he and the other beekeepers have done due diligence; letting the church and neighbors know there’s beehives, and that they’d assume liability for any mishaps​. H​e says there’s have been none.

The Elijah’s Promise beekeepers installed a meter-height fence around the hives, which Capece said keeps the bees from flying to neighboring property and instead makes them fly upwards and to more distance areas.

The bees can fly as much as three miles away from the hive, Capece said​. T​hey travel to heavily wooded and garden areas they can pollinate: Boyd, Johnson and Buccleuch Park, Rutgers Gardens an the Cook Farms.

Editor Daniel J. Munoz,