The Bee Man of Cumberland CountyLast Edited:
Photo above by Emily Farrell.
CUMBERLAND COUNTY, NJ — Hive boxes are strategically placed on the edge of farm fields, in full sun, beside blueberry bushes. Tim Schuler is a bee whisperer, pulling off the lid, lightly sweeping the area with his smoker. He’s unconcerned about his uncovered head and arms. The sound alone is daunting, yet, he knows these bees. He hears their hum.
What started as a hobby for this Richland resident now is his occupation, his side business, and meaningful volunteer work. Schuler is the New Jersey state apiarist. He also exports his expertise to Malawi, an impoverished African nation.
He pollinates like the insects he tends, improving the yield and quality of lives wherever he travels. He says the analogy is OK: “They work. They’re not lazy. They are happiest when they’re doing something.”
Schuler’s first exposure to bees was when his dad, a Pennsylvania Dutchman, sneaked some into their suburban neighborhood.
“Mom freaked out,” he recalled, “so Dad said we had to keep it on the ‘down low.’ ”
Though Schuler first worked in animal husbandry, he and his wife, Patty, took up beekeeping first as a hobby and then as a side business when they moved to Richland.
“I became friendly with Bob Harvey from Harvey’s Honey,” he said. When Harvey received requests for jobs too small for him to be economical, he’d send them to Schuler.
Schuler’s Bees provides pollination services and honey.
“Honeybees and plants are depending upon each other,” Schuler explained. “The plant needs the pollen transferred from male to female. The plant gives them nectar, a sweet reward. It is an equally mutual relationship. Pollination increases the yield and quality of a farm.”
Schuler rattled off the local crops that need bees—blueberries, apples, cranberries, squash, cucumbers, melons, pumpkins.
Schuler is part of South Jersey Beekeepers, a group that’s five times larger than when Schuler joined 14 years ago. It has an educational slant, teaching skills like how to split hives and how to prepare for winter.
“Beekeeping is like a craft you’re always honing,” he said. “There are things to improve. It’s changed over the last 30 years.”
One of the beekeeper’s jobs is combining hives. Schuler puts it this way: “Not everyone gets along, but they sort things out. It’s like people. It’s like Borg on Star Trek. If they join the new collective, they live. Resistance is futile.”
On a sunny Saturday, Schuler moved a stronger hive box to the back. “Bees orient to where their hive is.”
The front, weaker box will now have more bees return to it. “The old queen is not going to swarm because she doesn’t have enough workers. That is understanding honeybee biology and using it to your advantage.”
Schuler hops in and out of the truck, nimbler now that he’s shed 65 pounds. His motivation: “I’ve got to live so my wife is secure.”
Patty started having balance and nerve issues 10 years ago. Despite visits to top neurologists, her condition is undiagnosed.
“They mapped her genome and researchers at this lab in California are comparing it to other people who have the same symptoms,” he said.
The Schulers give credit to Peace Love Yoga in Vineland.
“Yoga to the people,” he said, paraphrasing the yoga motto. “Weak, strong, old, young. Anyone can do it. There is no judgment here.”
Tim laughs, recalling his first handstand: “I fell like a heap of potatoes against the wall. Today I held it rock solid for nine breaths.”
At Muzzarelli Farms, Schuler checks on his boxes. Blueberries do best with about 1.5 hives per acre; vegetables like squash need one per acre.
“These were one of my first customers. I’ve been taking care of them for two generations. Patty and I moved some boxes a few nights ago. Patty reads the paper in the truck and hopes for ice cream when we’re done. You’re trying to do a year’s worth of work in six months in the bee business.”
As New Jersey State Apiarist, one of the tougher challenges was the varroa mite: “In 2007 we had major problems. Now we have a good control and we are 98 percent effective against this mite.”
Schuler regularly inspects hives that are ready to be sold. “We want to make sure we’re not passing on a disease,” he said. Thousands of hives also come into the state each year.
“They come with certificates from the state they’re coming from. I spot check them for strength.”
His job also involves forensics. Recently, he went to a farm where all the bees were lost. He checks for proper varroa mite management, bacterial disease, and food supply. He checks surrounding farms. If there is a problem, he notifies beekeepers in the area. Schuler is always sharing knowledge, in his contributions to the NJ Beekeepers newsletter and in his intermediate hands-on classes.
ANNUAL TRIP TO MALAWI
Schuler is enthusiastic about taking the knowledge to Malawi, a place he admittedly had to look up on a map when he was invited by a veterinarian who was his beekeeping student. He’s traveled five times in the last five years under Villages in Partnership (VIP).
“I like being involved with people, especially if I can go somewhere my skills can be used,” he said. VIP fosters long-term partnerships in 26 Malawi villages, where most do not have electricity or running water. VIP is building wells and repairing old ones.
“Water is a huge problem. Women walk two to three kilometers every day and carry the water on their heads. In May, we are having a Water Walk to raise money. I teach beekeeping skills to generate supplemental income for their family.”
In Malawi, beekeeping is for honey production, not pollination. “Honey can be sold as food and medicine. People buy it and pay a relatively good price,” he said.
Patty has traveled with him twice and their son, Ben, joined them for a trip. On each trip, Tim is teaching existing village beekeepers and recruiting new ones: “Change doesn’t come fast in a lot of cultures.”
They took a busload of beekeepers to visit a commercial beekeeper. He had a TV antenna and two employees. “We wanted our village beekeeper to get a vision of what is possible. But TIA—This is Africa. That’s our motto. Things don’t happen fast. One wrong decision could put their family into famine mode. They have to test it slowly.”
On one trip Patty worked at the Chiteni school, which was built by VIP. Kids from Schuler’s church, Vineland’s Faith Bible, donated money for one classroom’s desks. “Prior to this school, kids had to walk five kilometers to school, so they often didn’t go.”
Patty also visited with widows and the elderly. “You don’t know what an encouragement that was to them. They think Americans sit on gold toilets and don’t have any problems. There’s Patty walking with a cane and she can barely sit on the ground.”
The most challenging job he faced in Malawi was to move 10 bee hives 20 kilometers away on bumpy roads. They rigged up a cargo net and worked at night.
“I’m afraid of snakes,” Schuler said. “Every snake in Africa will kill you. Here I am walking in the dark through the woods. I’m sweating my butt off. Then I realize the odds are probably in my favor as there were 15 of us.”
The highlight of his trips was their 30th wedding anniversary party. A Malawi man who Schuler describes as a brother said Schuler was an example to them because it is common in their culture if a wife is disabled, the husband divorces her. He said: “Mr. Tim Schuler doesn’t because Mr. Schuler loves God. God wants us to do that. Our marriages need to be strong like that.”
In April Schuler took eight New Jersey beekeepers. Now Tim and Patty are learning Chichewa, the language of Malawi, at the University of Pennsylvania. “When I retire, we’d like to go back a month at a time.”
“Here’s what’s encouraging to me. Guys who were only members of clubs now have their own hives. Beekeeping is a great side business for a family. With that extra money, you can send your kids to school. Buy tin for your roof, buy the extra food or goods you need to survive.”
Like a bee, Schuler is busy at home, across the Garden State, and at great distances. It’s a contented hum.
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