Alma Johnson’s back yard is swarming with bees, but she is not afraid. At home in the Jungle Gardens neighborhood in Sarasota, she dons the protective jumpsuit and helmet of a beekeeper and ventures out to check her hives.
With a small metal canister of burning grass, Johnson gives the bees a few light puffs of smoke to settle them down while she inspects
the honeycombs. She talks to them. Johnson, one of about 60 beekeepers in Sarasota, maintains dozens of colonies
scattered around the city. They supply her business, the Sarasota Honey Co., makers of honey, candles, soap and other products.
Unlike many large commercial beekeepers, Johnson prefers to spread her colonies out. She believes it makes for healthier hives. “My husband says I baby my bees,” Johnson said.
Few could blame her. Bee colonies across the country have been devastated in recent years by mysterious population collapses. More than one third have vanished, and the loss threatens a large portion of the world’s crops that depend on bees for
pollination. The Florida Legislature had earmarked more than $2.5 million to build a research laboratory at the University of Florida before the recent session ended abruptly in political rancor over Medicaid. Among other things, the lab would have studied the
pesticides and parasites that harm bee populations.
The money would have been a “huge deal, especially for Florida,” said Dave Westervelt, chief apiary inspector for the Florida Department of Agriculture. “Right now we’ve got a very healthy industry in the sense that it’s growing. But we still have
a lot of commercial beekeepers losing bees, and for reasons that we don’t fully understand.” Demand keeps rising Protecting the health of bee colonies could be important to Florida. The state’s beekeeping industry has grown quickly in recent years to become the third largest honey producer in the U.S., behind North Dakota and South Dakota. Nearly 3,900 beekeepers are operating across the state, up from 1,000 seven years ago. The industry is worth more than $23 million per year, and continues to grow,
with 100 new beekeepers registered in the state every month.
Just as Florida draws snowbird residents from around the country during the winter months, so too does it attract northern beekeepers looking to build up their colonies in warm weather Demand for honey, bees, and information about beekeeping is at its highest level
since World War II, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Honey Report. And prices are expected to keep rising. But to keep the honey flowing, the bees may need help. Last year, losses of bees to the unexplained colony collapse disorder hit 42 percent.
In CCD, which was discovered about a decade ago, adult honeybees simply disappear from hives, almost all at the same time. A queen and immature bees are often found in the hives with plenty of food stores, inadequately attended by a few adult bees.
Scientists believe the mass disappearances may be linked to multiple factors, including disease, lack of diverse food sources and pesticides. But no clear answer has been found. “Bees are having a hard time these days,” said Tom Nolan, president of the Florida
State Beekeepers Association. Nolan, who raises bees at his Bradenton home, has testified in front of the Florida Senate about the losses, which had been around 30 percent in recent years until spiking last summer. Some commercial beekeepers have given up, he said. “Even hobbyists are struggling.”
A good investment Beekeeping continues to draw new converts. Some are attracted to the strong market for honey, while others had their interest stoked by recent documentaries and news reports of the crisis facing bees. When Nolan helped found the Suncoast Beekeepers Association in Lakewood Ranch, it only had about a half dozen members. Now there are 90 from Sarasota and
Manatee counties and 42 other local beekeeping associations across the state. Bees make honey with whatever pollenproducing plants are available, and Florida offers more variety than many other areas. In Sarasota, bees set out from backyard
hives to pollinate Brazilian peppertree, Cabbage Palm, Orange blossom and wildflowers. In the Panhandle, bees gravitate to Tupelo.
The honey varies by flavor depending on the plant.
Beekeepers such as Nolan welcome the potential of the University of Florida’s new Honey Bee and Pollinator lab, hoping it can one day help find solutions to the collapse of their bee populations. The lab was judged to be a good investment by
Florida Tax Watch, a nonpartisan research group based in Tallahassee. Tax Watch estimated a return to Florida of about $89 million, based on the potential of bee production in the Florida and related economic activity. About $2.1 million would return directly to the state coffers in sales tax. Other gains would come from increased production of bees, which have value to agriculture
industries around the country, including almond producers in California who pay up to $15 million to Florida beekeepers each year.
Other returns would come from visitors to the state, including beekeeping workers and researchers, more research and lower costs to beekeepers. Florida is the winter nursery for 27 states, visited by 4,500 beekeeping workers and 280,000 colonies each year.
What’s best for the bees
Westervelt, the Florida apiary inspector, is charged with making sure every colony in the state is personally examined for safety each year. But with hundreds of thousands of colonies and only 13 inspectors, Westervelt can barely keep up, he said.
He would like to hire eight more inspectors. About 10 percent of beekeepers in Florida are commercial operations. Some have
diversified from honey production to raising bee colonies for sale or producing beekeeping equipment.
But not everyone sees bees purely in business terms.
Back in Sarasota, Johnson the beekeeper runs her operation differently. Instead of keeping her 70 hives concentrated — which would be most efficient — she has them spread out in pockets, with some off of McIntosh and Fruitville roads and
others near University Parkway or on a nearby farm. Depending on where they are located, they find different plants to pollinate. “It’s not about what’s best for us. It’s about what’s best for the bees,” Johnson said. “And
about what’s best for the community.” To help her care for the bees and process the honey she sells in local stores, Johnson
has recruited young people with developmental disabilities and partnered with the Community Haven for Adults and Children with Disabilities in Sarasota. “I like to say I work with two of the most misunderstood populations: bees and people with disabilities,” Johnson said. After some time and training many have taken to the work, and she hopes to send one of her young helpers to “Bee College,” a beekeeping training program at the University of Florida.But above all, she must keep her bee colonies from disappearing.
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