Plenty of interest in bees, beekeeping is the second half of a story on bees. Part 1, So you want to save bees, ran Nov. 25.
No bees, no food — that’s the message traveling around the world as people become aware of the importance of bees to our food chain.
Interest in beekeeping is mushrooming
“Ten to 12 years ago, we were lucky to get 10 to 12 new beekeepers a year. With the law changed and beehives now allowed in back yards, we’re getting sometimes 25 new ones a week,” notes Dave Westervelt, the assistant chief of apiary for Florida’s Department of Agriculture.
He has worked for 24 years on behalf of beekeepers in the state.
When Africanized bees, the aggressive variety of honeybee, showed up in Florida, cities around the state clamped down on allowing backyard hives, fearing lawsuits if someone got stung.
Today, it’s just the opposite: Backyard hives are managed and inspected, Westervelt notes, and when the aggressive bees are found, they can be contained by replacing the colony’s queen with a European bee.
While some new beekeepers are hobbyists and maintain only a few hives, others want to begin a bee business – and in Florida, bees are big business.
Honey is important to Florida’s consumers, economy
The state ranks in the top five in the U.S. each year in honey production. In 2014, the Sunshine State ranked fourth — producing 13 million pounds of honey and bringing in $27 million to the agriculture economy.
“North Dakota is the one to beat,” Westervelt says. It’s followed by South Dakota and Montana – all clover-honey producers.
Florida is unique in that its honey comes from several plants, from five to 13 sources, and all mature at different times of the year, Westervelt explains: “We’re usually producing some honey year-round here.”
Even backyard beekeepers can make $15,000 selling honey from just four or five hives, he says.
A common perception is that orange-blossom honey is a top variety for Florida. But, though popular, it’s down on the list, especially since citrus greening has made it harder for beekeepers to collect that type.
Oranges trees do not need bees for pollination; nonetheless, orange-blossom honey has become associated with the state.
Timing in beekeeping is necessary to avoid disaster
“The trees have to be sprayed for greening,” Westervelt explains. “Beekeepers are told ahead of time the spray schedule and can move their bees out of the groves, and then bring them back. But it has to be timed, and everybody has to be on the same page.”
Though honey is a big part of beekeeping, it’s not all sweet stuff – many commercial beekeepers lease bees for pollination services.
Florida’s beekeepers work orange groves and field crops, then take their bees to California to pollinate almond crops in the spring. Almonds depend on bees for production, and California is one of the leading almond producers in the world.
Florida has 10 percent of the 1.5 million hives needed there, Westervelt notes.
Other crops need bees, too: watermelons, squashes, apples, peaches, blueberries and tropical fruits, among others. The rest of the edible plants not dependent on bees for fruits need bees to pollinate for seed production.
No bees = very bad news
Without bees, scientists and growers agree, there would be less food by a third, and higher prices for it. Crops would diminish or, in some cases, cease to exist.
It’s why Al Salopek, who started Bee Understanding, an educational program in West Palm Beach, is teaching schoolkids just how a world without bees would look. They all agree: not good.
He passes out honeycombs and shows them a hive that he approaches — without bee clothing. “You have to be calm around bees; it’s almost a Zen moment. You have to clear your head and think only about the bees.”
After getting the kids fired up almost to an evangelical pitch about saving the bees, he finishes by handing out T-shirts bearing his slogan that sums it all up: “Give Bees a Chance!”
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of Florida Food & Farm magazine.