Steve Byers of Bee Healthy Honey Farms with bees in Delray Beach Tuesday, March 17, 2015.

Steve Byers of Bee Healthy Honey Farms in Delray Beach Tuesday, March 17, 2015.

Steve Byers of Bee Healthy Honey Farms in western Delray Beach removes the honeycomb from one of his 80 hives. He uses these bees for honey production and leases others to farmers to pollinate their crops. / Bruce Bennett

This is the first half of a story on bees. Part 2 will run Dec. 2.

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.


Fortunately, thanks to stories and recent documentaries highlighting the alarming decline of the bee population globally, there is new appreciation for this, the most important insect on Earth.

He can barely contain his excitement – Al Salopek gets to educate a newcomer to the world of bees.

The man behind Bee Understanding, an education program for kids and adults in West Palm Beach, is the bees’ new best friend. He’s spreading the word across South Florida about bees, their plight, and how everyday actions affect the insects that help to provide almost one-third of the food worldwide.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there. We’re trying to educate kids about the importance of bees – they (kids) are the key to our planet’s future.”

Salopek performs live bee removals – moving unwanted bees to hives that he gives away to first-time beekeepers. “We gave away more than 700 hives last year,” he says.

Al Salopek, of Bee Understanding, does live removals, saving bees in public locations by moving them to structured hives. / Courtesy of Bee Understanding

Al Salopek does live removals, saving bees in public locations by moving them to structured hives. / Courtesy of Bee Understanding

Retired from a restaurant career, he got hooked on bees after he helped a neighbor remove a hive from his house. Salopek then threw himself into research about bees and became a full-time advocate for everything bee-related.

Today, he’s in his backyard bee yard, where wildflowers and weeds that bees love grow knee-high around a few hives. He demonstrates everything from graphic bee anatomy to “vacuuming” bees – the method used in live bee removal.

“It’s a gentle suction,” he explains, demonstrating the box that breaks up the vacuum’s pull and serves as a transport container to a new hive.

Helping to save the environment

He performs dozens of bee removals annually. That’s because more people want to save the bees and avoid the harmful chemicals that exterminators must use to kill them.

Along with the kids he teaches, Salopek has found another enthusiastic audience for his bee programs in hopeful apiarists. “Interest in backyard beekeeping has gone ballistic,” he notes.

Many eventually move on to professional beekeeping. “What we’re now starting to see is some of the backyard beekeepers transitioning to ‘side-liners’ with 26 to 300 hives, and out of the hobbyist range; even others are going to commercial beekeeping.”

That’s good news to 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.

“Bee numbers have jumped significantly since last year,” he says. “We were at 240,000 hives; now we’re at 440,000.”

bee-closeup-erickson

A bee picks up plant pollen, which is turned into “bee bread” as a protein source and honeycomb-building material in the hive. Bees are essential to plant life on Earth, and though there are other pollinators, bee populations far outnumber them. / J.D. Vivian

Bees are “livestock”

According to Tom Nolan, president of the Florida Beekeepers Association, the hives represent 3,500 registered beekeepers. Bees are considered “livestock” under Florida’s rules, and keepers must be registered with the Department of Agriculture. Hives are inspected and numbered, as well.

It’s good that hobby beekeepers are growing – it helps foster awareness, Nolan notes: “They have the same problems as commercial beekeepers, but on a smaller scale.”

Varroa mites and hive beetles are among the threats to hives, and they can kill the colony or cause them to abandon their hives.

Nolan says that if pests or problems can be detected in a backyard hive and contained before they spread statewide, it’s good for all.

The “locavore” movement is helping to increase interest, he adds. “That’s definitely part of it; people who want natural foods are a part of it. Plus, there’s been a lot of press on the loss of bee colonies. It brought a lot of people into beekeeping.”

Pesticides part of the problem

Bee-colony collapse was in the news often, a decade ago, and scientists have scrambled to find out what’s been killing off the bees. There was no one definitive answer, though systemic pesticides containing a specific chemical, neonicotinoid, were found to be one culprit.

There are more studies out there on bees than ever, the Dept. of Ag’s Westervelt explains, and along with them, more interest in beekeeping.

He credits Jamie Ellis of the University of Florida’s Entomology and Nematology Department with helping the state tie together all the resources available for beekeepers. “We now have an excellent education program he started at the university, Bee College. There’s a definite network of education out there.”

One of the foremost experts in bee studies in the U.S., Ellis created a traveling school for beekeepers six years ago – providing the most current information and methods available. It has grown annually, and people from around the country come to sign up for sessions, held in North and South Florida twice a year.

The next UF Bee College will be held in St. Augustine on Friday and Saturday, March 10-11, 2017. Visit http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/honeybee/extension/bee_college.shtml for more information.

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of Florida Food & Farm magazine.