HUDSON — Charlie Hammond first saw bees en masse as a boy growing up in Hudson.
We're not talking about one or two bees hovering over the potato salad at a picnic, but rather, a dark swarm of bees hanging out in a tree belonging to a neighbor.
"I was definitely impressed," recalls Hammond, who estimates he was 10 at the time. "I never forgot it."
Fast forward nearly a couple of decades.
Hammond, now 37, is the kind of guy who can do anything. He and his wife, Annemarie — the environmental lands coordinator for Pasco County — make their home on 21/2 acres on the Pasco side of Spring Hill.
They live in a 1970s house on land that offers both an open field and a generous stand of live oaks. Out back they have room for their two dogs and a lot of bees — 18 hives to be exact, in special 16-by-20-inch boxes that separate the hives from the queen and have honey surplus boxes on top.
Hammond is a serious amateur beekeeper and president of the Tampa Bay Beekeepers Association. Like just about everything else he does, he taught himself beekeeping by reading a lot and going to meetings with other people who like raising bees.
He's not afraid of getting stung, which is a good thing since it happens a fair amount — at least six to 12 times — every time he's out tending the hives.
"If you don't like getting stung, don't become a beekeeper," he says.
His bees produce all kinds of honey, including his favorite, saw palmetto, which he doesn't sell commercially, just by word of mouth and to friends.
"We give away a lot of gifts," Hammond explains.
Once a month he and his friends at the Tampa Bay Beekeepers Association, www.tampabaybeekeepers.com, give educational seminars in Upper Tampa Bay Park, where the not-for-profit club keeps 48 hives.
He can tell you all about the environmental issues affecting the bee population, about aggressive Africanized bees, even the medicinal effects of honey (he puts a tablespoon in his coffee every morning to ward off allergies).
Hammond, who by day works as a building inspector for Hernando County, makes use of nature's offerings, much the way our grandparents did in post Depression America. In winter, he heats his home with firewood from fallen trees he picks up from the side of the road; the air conditioner didn't go on this year until Mother's Day weekend.
He grows squash, tomatoes, peppers, onions, cabbage and beets in his garden. He cans his freshly grown green beans (a skill he picked up after researching it on the Internet) and makes his own vegetable spaghetti sauce from scratch.
He hunts wild boar and deer on public land near Cedar Key, and is as proficient with bow and arrow as he is with a gun. (One boar and deer provide Hammond and Annemarie with meat for months.) In addition, Hammond makes his own sausage — breakfast-style and Italian. He's also a skilled baker known for his chocolate cake as well as chocolate-chip cookies baked with honey (he substitutes honey for sugar, cup for cup).
"We use honey in everything we would use sugar in," he says.
Hammond, who also brews his own beer and wine, recalls how he started in honey. He was shopping at the local home brew supply store "when the owner asked if we'd like to sample some mead." Mead is a honey wine made from a centuries-old recipe.
Hammond and Annemarie loved it so much that he bought a gallon of honey from the store-owner, then went home and promptly made his own.
Not long after that, he was driving to Tarpon Springs along Alternate 19 when he saw a local beekeeper along the roadside selling honey. Hammond stopped and bought several varieties, including Brazilian pepper and orange blossom.
"I told him I was sort of thinking about becoming a beekeeper," Hammond says, "and he told me that if I wanted to do it there was a lot of work ahead of me."
Undeterred, Hammond and Annemarie put their research skills to work. They found the Web sites for the state bee inspector and the Tampa Bay Beekeepers Association.
That was in 2005.
He has grown a hobby into an avocation in just three years. He's expanding slowly, adding five hives a year.
If you like honey, he advises bypassing the often bland varieties on the grocery store shelves and buying from a local beekeeper. Local delicacies are delicious, from prized Tupelo honey in north Florida to orange blossom in central Florida.
The difference in taste?
Says Hammond: "No comparison."
Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.