HILAND PARK — Wearing short sleeves and jeans in Monday’s unseasonably warm weather, Keith Clark spoke casually about the life cycle of honey bees, holding a honeycomb up to the sunlight and pointing to the tiny eggs. he didn’t flinch as thousands of stinging insects fluttered over his exposed skin.
When beekeepers start out, they typically don a full bee suit with a hood and cumbersome gloves for fear of painful stingers emitted from the creatures in defense, fear or frustration, but gradually they realize the bees have better things to worry about, according to veteran beekeepers and Tupelo Beekeepers members Clark, Laurence Cutts and Reno Plenge.
“They are fascinating creatures to work with and you either love them or you hate them,” said Cutts, a third-generation beekeeper who has been in the bee business his entire life. “They are fairly docile, if you handle them right.”
When a female bee — males don’t have stingers — pricks whomever or whatever she deems an enemy at that moment, part of her guts goes with it and she dies, Cutts said.
“She’s not flying around looking for somewhere to commit suicide,” he said.
Ironically, a precipitous decline in the bee population around the world — a mysterious trend dubbed colony collapse by scientists studying the phenomenon — has coincided with an uptick in interest in beekeeping, the experts said.
Bees are crucial to the production of many crops and fewer wild bees have made commercial, cultivated hives highly sought after, and pollination, not honey production, is the leading business of beekeepers in Florida, where warm weather and an abundance of flowering plants create an ideal habitat for raising bees.
Last year, Florida sent about 60,000 bee hives to California for pollination, Cutts said. The production of almonds alone can be increased almost six times when honey bees are available for pollination and about half of the bee hives in the country are rented in California during crucial periods in the growing season, he said.
Before colony collapse became a significant problem, hives could be rented for about $50 or $60. The price now has elevated to $140 per hive and beekeepers are struggling to keep up with the demand. Plenge said he lost about half of his hives to colony collapse last year.
Despite the demand, beekeeping is a financial struggle, the locals said. Cutts, who will be inducted into the state’s agriculture hall of fame in February, went bankrupt in the bee business in the 1980s when a tropical mite put Florida bees on quarantine. Imported honey also is eating away at profit margins, they said.
In addition, the “green movement,” which has made many people more conscious of pesticides and chemicals and led to more home-grown produce, has increased the number of beekeepers, Cutts said.
Commercial beekeepers tend to be older, said Cutts and Plenge, both in their 70s, but most people are “small-time,” Cutts said. They have one or two hives to pollinate their gardens.
One hive of honey bees contains about 15,000 bees in the winter, when production is low, and up to about 60,000 in the summer. They can pollinate about one square acre, Cutts said. While bees will gather their nectar and pollen as close to the hive as possible, they have been known to go as far as seven miles from the hive.
Beekeeping class set next week
To help the influx of new beekeepers, the University of Florida/IFAS is teaming with 17 county extension offices in Northwest Florida to put on a virtual introduction to beekeeping class.
Participants can pay $50 for the class; each additional person sharing the materials will be charged only $25, and access to the class is available at all participating county extension offices. Beginning Monday, a series of eight classes will be offered Mondays at 6 p.m. with instructors, including Cutts, teaching various aspects of beekeeping. The videos will be broadcast live to each office and participants will be able to ask questions and communicate.
Registration forms are available in Bay County at www.baycountyfl.gov and can be delivered (by mail or in person) to the Bay County Extension office at 2728 E 14th St., Panama City FL 32401. Registration will be accepted until classes begin Monday night. for more information, contact Marjorie Moore or Scott Jackson at 784-6105.
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