DENNIS TOWNSHIP, N.J. - With wind gusts in excess of 30 m.p.h. buffeting him, Gary Schempp struggled to check the health of his honeybee hives. The insects, enduring another day imprisoned in their hives by the uncooperative weather, reacted to Schempp's intrusion with a few well-placed stings.
"We're having a hard time standing here," Schempp said of maintaining an upright position against the howling wind as he visited hives he has at Jalma Farms on Route 9 in Ocean View, Cape May County. "Imagine being a honeybee and trying to fly in this."
Such is the plight of the honeybee, an insect so lightweight it takes 300 worker bees to equal an ounce.
With one-quarter of the state's honeybee colonies decimated by the brutal winter and starved by a cold spring, and almost half of the colonies killed by weather conditions coupled with a parasite infestation, the situation is getting desperate for the bees that have managed to survive.
"We only had four or five 'fly days' in March for the bees to gather pollen," said Tim Schuler, of the New Jersey Department of Agriculture. "Normally we have 15. The severely cold nights and snow a week and a half ago has meant that the small colony hanging on at the beginning of March has dwindled down and died by the end of March."
Schempp, a resident of the Dias Creek section of Middle Township who has hives distributed on six farms throughout Cape May County, estimated his overwinter losses at 20 percent.
Statewide, Schuler said, the overwinter death survey he conducted a week ago revealed a 27 percent colony loss for those beekeepers who treated for a varroa mite infestation and a 42 percent loss for those who didn't.
Losses in previous years have run as high as 65 percent for hives not treated for parasites and as low as 10 percent for hives that were treated, Schuler said.
"Severe cold is a problem, but what is worse are dramatic fluctuations in temperature that we often have in South Jersey during the winter," said Jenny Carleo, agricultural and resource management agent with the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station in Cape May Court House.
"When there are a few warm, sunny days in January or February, the bees become more active and start to look for pollen and nectar sources outside of the hive," she said. This ends up wasting precious energy because there are so few plants producing either type of food that time of year.
"So the bees return to the hive both hungry and empty-handed. When this happens over and over again during a winter, their resources get depleted, weakening the hive."
More colonies tend to starve in February and March, said Schuler, whose father started him beekeeping 45 years ago on his family's property in Richland in the Buena Vista Township section of Atlantic County. "They need food to feed the babies."
Schempp said he fed his bees sugar and fondant to help them through the inhospitable winter.
Since wind, rain and cold all prevent bees from leaving the hive, and the cool spring has delayed plants from blooming, there is reason to be concerned about crop production and price increases this summer.
Schempp said honeybees are responsible for pollinating 30 percent of the food on our tables.
In addition to the service honeybees provide in pollinating crops, they produce a sweet by-product.
In New Jersey, honey is becoming a million-dollar business. In 2012, the state's 14,000 honeybee colonies produced 462,000 pounds of honey valued at $910,000, said Lynne Richmond, public information officer for NJDA.