By Steve Sears
James Townsend talks about the humble beginnings of Long Valley’s JRT Bees. “I was only going to start a few colonies; it was just to get some honey for me, my friends, and my family. Then, I just decided to start a nice little business.”
Townsend purchased two nucleus colonies in the fall of 2019, and started in April 2020. The result was a little bit of honey, but also a lot of learning. “I got those two colonies through that first winter, which is really hard,” he says. 3
In 2021, the initial two colonies turned into seven colonies – and about 250 pounds of honey, which Townsend sold to Ort Farms, and they in turn sold it locally. This year, those seven colonies doubled to 14, and he is closing in on 900 pounds of honey as his third year concludes. He still sells his honey to Ort Farms, and in August also set up a table at the Fireworks, Food Truck and Green Festival at Long Valley Middle School. Townsend, who attended both West Morris Central High School in Chester and County College of Morris in Randolph, will also have his honey sold at Long Valley Pharmacy this winter. A member of the Raritan Valley Beekeepers Association, he has a JRT Bees self-serve stand in front of his home at 40 Parker Road in Long Valley.
Bees and the act of beekeeping have been a fascination of Townsend’s since he was a youngster. “I grew up on Ort Farms,” he says. “My father used to take me, and they’ve always had bees. I remember as a kid going down and talking to beekeepers, and getting big chunks of honey.”
In 2002, his boss started with two colonies of his own, with Townsend pitching in to help, and in 2019, Townsend decided to take his own interest to a new level. “Before the whole pandemic and everything, I studied for a year and a half reading books, and YouTube was really big,” he says. Then came the two nucleus colonies purchased from Beehive Barn in Cranbury, and what would become JRT Bees was up and running.
Townsend has one apiary, which is located behind his home. A bear fence surrounds it, for obvious reason. Two things can significantly harm bee colonies, bears and Varroa mites, but thus far neither have plagued Townsend and his bees. “The Varroa mites are number one,” Townsend says regarding his primary concern. “I test for Varroa mites, and I’ve been able to keep the numbers low enough with some natural organic products that they have on the market.” As for wildlife, deer and raccoons have been curious enough to approach the fenced in apiary, but the lone bear Townsend has spotted hasn’t been an issue. “I think he could probably hear a little clicking or he could sense the electric fence maybe. He hasn’t gone near it yet, but I stay vigil, because I’ve been here since 2003, and never ever have I seen a bear on our property until now.”
Townsend is looking to expand his JRT Bees operation. Ort Farms has invited him to place colonies on their farm, and he also has friends five miles from his home who are interested in placing some colonies on their fenced in property. “I’m looking to expand a little bit more,” he says. “It was a lot of work this year, just doing the seven and that turning into 14. I don’t really even know what the plan is for spring yet, because it’s hard. They want to expand, they want to breed and swarm, and it’s hard to keep them tame.”
Another challenge for Townsend is his job as a carpenter, and how he works his profession while tending to his bees. “Springtime – April, May, and June – I literally had to take off one to two days per week to concentrate on the bees, and you have to do it in the middle of the day,” he says. “When you’re working with the bees, it’s got to be warm and sunny, no rain. On the nicest days, I’m working on the bees instead of building decks and the other stuff that I’ve been doing. It’s been a little juggling act.”