Sure, things look bad for the bee man. But we are talking about Harold P. Curtis. Bees sting him and he hardly flinches. Bees die by the thousands and he raises another brood. Just let a bear approach his hives. He will not surrender a hive without a fight.
Morning. Clearing skies. Citrus trees blossom through clouds of excited bees. His famous orange blossom honey is waiting to be gathered.
Seventy-seven now, he has been a bee man since age 3. His daddy taught him how, and his granddaddy taught his daddy how, first in North Carolina and then in Florida.
The Harold P. Curtis Honey Co. store has been a fixture near the Caloosahatchee River on N Bridge Street since 1954. The family's hives — about 3,000 in all — can be found in the groves, in the pines, in the mangroves and along the beaches of south Central Florida.
As they buzz around him by the thousands, Mister Harold, as he is often called, works calmly and deliberately, without a veil, without a protective suit, the way he always has done.
"If I ever have to wear one of those astronaut suits to gather honey,'' he drawls, "I'm a-quitting.''
A tough old cob, he has no plans to retire.
• • •
What's more painful than a bee sting? Trying to make a living at beekeeping in 21st century Florida.
For a growing number of Floridians, it's an interesting hobby. Set up a couple of hives, buy some bees, collect the honey, give it away to friends at Christmas. If your hives fail, not a big deal.
If you do it for money, you had better be a tough old cob. Everything is against you.
"In fact, it's one of the worst times ever.''
That's Mister Harold's daughter talking. Rene Curtis, 55, was raised in her daddy's business. In fact, she runs the store that bears his name. She also spends a lot of time working his hives. Stung? "Mister, I've been stung hundreds of times." Coping with dying bees. "I'm tired of dead bees.''
The world is in the middle of another Colony Collapse Disorder episode. Since 2006, the phenomenon has wiped out an estimated 10 million hives nationally, a loss worth more than $2 billion to beekeepers. Scientists, at this point, can only offer theories. Too many pesticides, perhaps. Or too many fungicides in the environment. Perhaps it's disease-bearing parasites infecting bees. It could be poor beekeeping practices that lead to malnutrition. It could be a combination of all of those things, or something undiscovered.
Bee populations have collapsed in the past — in the 19th century the mysterious ailment was known as "disappearing disease." After a few years, things would mysteriously improve. Nobody knows what will happen this time. The Curtis clan — Rene, Mister Harold and Harold's brother Elliot — has lost hundreds of hives and thousands of bees.
Colony Collapse Disorder has been bad for them and Florida's other 3,600 other beekeepers. It's also bad news for farmers who depend on bees to pollinate crops. About $15 billion in fruits, nuts and vegetables are at risk nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Down at the Harold P. Curtis Honey Co., nobody is panicking.
"Our world revolves around bees,'' Rene says.
• • •
Mister Harold wakes early, heads for the shop, takes a break to eat a peanut butter and palmetto blossom honey sandwich on white bread, builds hives, gathers honey, goes home, chats with his wife Nancy, wakes up refreshed from a short nap, then starts plotting about what he'll do tomorrow.
Bee work. Perhaps he will move hives into another grove or pine forest or mangrove jungle where something is in bloom. He will also check his citrus trees. He grows them so his bees will have a dependable source of citrus blossoms. Now citrus greening has arrived in Florida.
It's a lethal disease something like cancer. A tiny bug from China, Asian citrus psyllid, found south of Miami decades ago, spreads a bacteria from tree to tree. Roots grow into grotesque claws. Unripened fruit drops from trees. Citrus greening is epidemic. But hang on there. Mister Harold replaces dead citrus trees with new ones. Customers, after all, count on him for orange blossom honey.
It's his specialty. OBH is sweet, delicate and popular. The Curtis clan sells it over the counter to Florida residents and to tourists passing through on the way to Fort Myers or Palm Beach. He also ships to Europe.
"Maybe a normal person would give up in Florida,'' Mister Harold says. "But I'm a tough old guy and a little dumb.''
Maybe this is all you need to know about him: When he was a teen, he once wrestled a gorilla at a county fair. He stayed in the ring for five minutes and won 20 bucks.
• • •
Rene has no ambition to wrestle an ape. But she has her daddy's work ethic and determination. She was 3 when first stung. She cried then went back to the bees. "If you work bees you're going to get stung,'' she says. When it's time to move hives closer to new blossoms, she does the heavy lifting with a forklift. "I can run a forklift better than any man,'' she says.
She's married to Dwayne Pratt. He was the fire chief in LaBelle for decades before retirement. Now he's a bee man, so addicted to honey he drizzles it on pizza. He shows up every day to do whatever is needed. He and Rene have two grown kids, Kyndel and Nathan, who do other things for a living but keep their fingers in the business while trying to stay away from potent stingers.
Unlike their granddad and their mama, they have never gotten used to the burning pain of a bee sting. "Bees always go for your face,'' Rene says. "The one place you never want to be stung is between the nostrils. I don't care how tough you are, the tears are going to fall.''
Like her dad, she is reluctant to wear a suit or a veil. The smoker, a device about the size of a teapot, is her only weapon. Smoke blocks the alarm pheromone released by guard bees that might trigger a mass attack.
She parks her truck in the orange grove, grabs her smoker, begins checking hives. By the thousands, bees circle frantically, bounce against her yellow T-shirt to test her mettle, but don't sting. Satisfied that no threat is present, they return to the hive or answer the call of the aromatic blossoms in the grove.
"I love to see big fat bees doing their job,'' Rene declares.
• • •
In the afternoon, people whose last name is Curtis gather in the shop, an old-fashioned place where shelves sag under the weight of honey jars, honey candles and honey candy. Customers can even watch bees making honey in a working hive behind a small window in the wall.
Rene toils in the back room, tirelessly filling jars from giant honey vats. Her granddaughter, Kaelyn Murray, is answering the telephone like a 16-year-old although she happens to be only 6. Her brother Lane, 11, is there to make sure his baby sister never becomes overconfident. Grandson Caden Pratt, 4, looking tiny under an enormous black cowboy hat, got stung by a bee recently but didn't cry.
Customers who are lucky encounter Mister Harold, looking magnificent in his trademark overalls, holding court. They pepper him with questions about stings, honey, killer bees.
They're Africanized bees, not killers, he explains, but "they're pretty mean bees'' that don't tolerate trespassers, especially nervous ones. "If you're scared,'' he goes on, "they'll sense it. If one stings you, now don't pick at the stinger — you'll just squeeze out more poison. Just brush it off" and run. You have been marked by bee pheromone. Other bees will smell it and come after you.
Bears and honey. It wouldn't be a day at the Harold P. Curtis Honey Co. without that topic being discussed.
"Mister, bears is everywhere these days,'' he says. "They tear apart our hives. It ain't so much the honey they're after. It's the brood, the larvae. We put electric wire around our hives and sometimes it works, but sometimes it don't. The bears, they're just another thing that's against you.''
For the record, Mister Harold fears no bears. He stands his ground, shoos them away if he has to.
In the store, a gray-haired customer sneezes violently. "Try some of this wildflower honey," Mister Harold advises. "It will help your allergies. And listen'' — he apparently has noticed Sneezy's high forehead — "some people claim a bald man will grow hair if he eats enough honey.''
For the record, Mister Harold still uses a comb.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727.