DESTIN — For years, Maggie Roberts and Jeff McFarland have kept beehives tucked in nooks and crannies around town, in a sort of clandestine beekeeping operation.
"You'd never know they were there," Roberts said of the couple's beehives, which are scattered on empty lots and in friends' back yards throughout Destin.
This winter, Roberts decided to go above ground, get licensed and start bottling and selling Mermaid Maggie's honey — the only honey available for purchase from Destin's own bees.
Roberts' efforts are part of a resurgence in backyard and urban beekeeping over the last decade.
Healthy, cared-for honeybee colonies help with the pollination of neighborhood gardens. They also help to counteract a mysterious global collapse of bee colonies over the past 10 years.
"The bee population has dropped dramatically," Roberts said. "That's why it's so important to have managed hives, to keep the healthy bees and keep them strong.
"We have docile, healthy and very happy little bees," she said.
Her bees produce about 1,200 pounds of thick, golden wildflower honey each year. She and McFarland harvest the honey in early summer and in the fall.
Eating honey is said to build immunity to local pollens and prevent symptoms of seasonal allergies, the most popular reason for her customers to buy her product, Roberts said. It also makes for a unique souvenir gift from the city.
Roberts' family has lived in Destin for four generations. Granny Emma Del Hamilton moved to the beach community in the 1920s.
Back then, beekeeping was more popular, and the sight of a backyard beehive was not uncommon.
Florida was the No. 1 state in the country for beekeeping until the mid 1980s, when bee populations died off from mite infestations, according to a report from the Florida State Association of Beekeepers.
Roberts said she is the only person with a honey house license in Destin, which allows her to bottle and sell her product. But, there are other backyard beekeepers popping up in her neighborhood. She and McFarland have sold a few of their Italian honeybee hives to interested residents.
The couple, who have been together for nine years, ordered their first bees in 2006. They started their first hive in McFarland's father's back yard to help pollinate his garden. "Jeff started helping his dad, and it just went from there," Roberts said.
Five years later, she said she never expected to be in business pouring the honey into hundreds of plastic bottles in the early morning hours before the restaurant she works for opens for lunch.
Earlier this year, when Dewey Destin gave Roberts a management position at his restaurant, she was required to get her food handler's license.
"Then Dewey told me 'Well Maggie, now you can start selling your honey,' " Roberts said.
He said she could use his restaurant as a commissary. With that and a hive inspection from the Florida State Board of Agriculture, Roberts' venture was legit.
Now Roberts said she'd like to expand her line of products. "I want to make soaps and candles with all the wax I'm getting," she said. "Right now we're just kind of seeing how this goes, and then we'll see if we need to do more next year."