Rebecca Conroy, dressed in long sleeves and a veiled hat, worked inside her apiary at the Ochs 4-H Educational Center. Three days had passed since she discovered two of her 21 hives suffered severe damage from what she suspected was pesticide poisoning. She was ready to see if any other hives were hurt, and if at least the queens from the damaged hives had survived.
She began to pull up frames, the dividers that hold the honeycombs, turning them from one side to the other.
Dead bees landed in piles, and no, she couldn't find the two queens.
She went on to check her other 19 hives and soon let out a sigh of relief. Her other bees — all 400,000 of them — were hard at work producing honey.
"I think that the affected bees went out to the same flower that must have been sprayed, and although the pesticide wasn't strong enough to kill them there, they died once they got home,'' Conroy said. "People need to learn what the sprays do to the environment.''
Beekeeping is a life passion for Conroy, 38, who talks to 4-H groups on gardening and beekeeping in return for use of the apiary.
"Bees are amazing creatures. Everyone who works with them falls in love with them,'' she said.
These days, that would be more people than ever. The number of registered beekeepers in Pinellas County has more than doubled in the past two years. In 2012, the number was less than 50; in 2014, the number is at 106. "And that number is growing,'' said Dave Westervelt, the chief apiary inspector for the Florida Department of Agriculture.
Westervelt thinks that the increase is due to a 2012 state law that took away the power of local municipalities to decide whether or not bees could be kept in residential areas. It also amended Florida's Right to Farm Act, relaxing rules on beekeepers.
The result is that unless you live in a deed-restricted neighborhood or have rules set up by a neighborhood association, it is now possible for you to become a backyard beekeeper.
"The thinking was by allowing beekeeping in more places, there would be an increase in healthy European honeybees,'' Westervelt said.
And the legislation is beginning to see results, he said.
Although it's impossible to count all the bees out there, beekeepers share information, and they are reporting to Westervelt that they are seeing more swarms of honeybees. Swarming, the natural means of reproduction of honeybee colonies, is a sign that bees are healthy.
"They are reporting more swarms in the last year than in many years,'' Westervelt said.
Tom Troiani, a Clearwater beekeeper who keeps three hives in his yard, and another 22 on a large, vacant piece of property in Pinellas Park, agrees with Westervelt. "It's a good year for the bees. I've seen a lot of swarms,'' he said.
Along with managing his hives, Troiani, 60, runs a bee removal service and works as a registered queen bee breeder, charging $25 per queen. Because of the importance of the queen, the state encourages beekeepers to replace her once a year with a queen from Department of Agriculture certified stock.
"Think of it as being similar to AKC-registered dogs,'' Troiani said. "First the state comes out and tests my bees for European honeybee traits, then I choose only my best queen bees from my hives. I base what queens I use on honey production, size of hives and temperament.''
Troy Palmer, a grounds maintenance crew chief for the city of Treasure Island, became interested in bees two years ago.
"I had discovered a hive in a valve box at work, and after researching on the Internet, I learned that I could start having them in my yard,'' he said. "It's been fun. Someone down the street has a mango tree, and this year I noticed he had a bumper crop of mangoes. I like to think I'm helping the neighbors out.''
After Palmer built 10 wooden bee boxes in his back yard, he bought his first hive of bees from a seller in North Port.
"The hive cost $150,'' he said. "It cost about $500 to start up the apiary, and I've made what I've invested back by selling my honey to family and friends. I don't plan on going into the honey business fulltime, but it was nice to make that $500 back.''
But Conroy, who holds chemistry and environmental studies degrees from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, considers her honey a major part of her livelihood. Although she also teaches science to homeschoolers, she harvests "Rebecca's Honey'' with the help of her mother, Gail, to sell at farmers markets ($7 for a half-pound; $12 for a pound). "Working with bees is a great way to be involved with your environment,'' she said.
However, Conroy recognizes that her environmentalism is in a far from perfect world. For example, bees make their honey based on whatever flowers are in bloom. "Typically in Pinellas it is some sort of mix of wild flowers,'' Conroy said. But in the fall, Florida bees go to flowers blooming on the Brazilian pepper, a nonnative, invasive plant.
"I know some people involved with native Florida plants that don't even want bees around because of the way Brazilian pepper takes over,'' Conroy said. "But it does help make a strong fall honey flow. Maybe it is a little bit of good out of bad.''
Contact Piper Castillo at [email protected] or (727) 445-4163. Follow @Florida_PBJC.