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Bee business is blossoming and all abuzz for Zephyrhills duo

SAN ANTONIO

At the back of an orange grove off the main highway, Jason Aiken and Dawn Allison tend their beehives.

The sweet smell of orange blossoms and the low hum of swarming bees saturate the afternoon air. The tiny insects buzz around stacks of wooden boxes — their homes — and congregate inside.

Dawn wears boots, jeans, protective gloves and a white jacket with a screened hood that completely covers her head. Jason, on the other hand, dons sandals, shorts and a T-shirt.

They use a smoker to calm the bees, pull out hive frames and inspect the honey factory inside.

Jason pushes his bare finger into the honeycomb, brings it to his lips and tastes the sweet, sticky nectar. Past his wrist, a bee writhes on his exposed flesh.

"There's one stinging me in the arm," he says calmly.

Jason and Dawn have been a couple for 15 years. Technically, they aren't married, but they tell people they are. It's just easier that way.

Jason, 39, found his way into beekeeping after graduating from college in 1998. He was working as an archaeologist and traveled to dig sites, staying overnight in hotels. He had always been interested in bees, and during down time, he had the chance to read about keeping them. After doing his research, he decided to buy a couple of hives.

"We've kind of grown out from there," he said.

Dawn, 38, was happy to get involved, too.

"You can't live with a beekeeper and not end up doing anything with them," she said.

They check on their hives at least once a week. Jason makes sure the bees are healthy and thriving, and pulls honey once it's ready. Dawn makes candles out of beeswax and fire starters out of dirty wax and sawdust. She's also in charge of their general marketing, talking to people about the business and educating them about bees.

They sell their products at fairs and festivals. They're at Cracker Country in Tampa many Saturdays. They were at the Florida State Fair in February. This weekend, they'll be at the Founders' Day festival in Zephyrhills. They also make deliveries.

"We only sell what we make, and we only sell in the counties we make it in," Dawn said.

• • •

"Look at how pretty!" Dawn exclaims, as she examines a frame crawling with bees and points to the only one with bright yellow on its legs.

Worker bees gather pollen in the "baskets" on their back legs and bring it to the hive. There, the bees use the pollen as food for those insects that are still in the developmental stages.

Jason points to a brown, crusty-looking casing that is attached to the wooden frame. It's called a swarm cell and it houses a new, developing queen.

"What I need to do is pull out the swarm cells," he explains.

When a hive is crowded, the bees begin making more queens to divide the workforce. Then, they fly off with a new queen and start a new hive. However, Jason and Dawn control this themselves. More bees in the hive means more honey.

"Have you found any honey yet?" Dawn asks.

"Yeah," Jason answers. "I'm looking for the white-capped cells."

Once a cell is full of honey, the bees cover it with a white, wax cap and move on to the next cell. It takes about 560 worker bees their entire lifetime — about six weeks during honey production seasons — to produce a pound of honey. It takes about 7 pounds of honey to make a pound of wax.

Jason and Dawn have 84 boxes of bees at this particular location at the back of a San Antonio orange grove, and there are about 60,000 bees in each box. That's more than 5 million bees. They also have boxes at three other sites in Zephyrhills and Dade City.

A Zephyrhills city ordinance prohibits them from keeping bees at their Ninth Street home within the city limits.

"I'm always looking for yards to put bees in," Jason says.

They move the bees according to the season. Oranges are blooming now, so the bees are in the groves producing honey. They can also produce honey in Florida holly and gallberry. Dawn says gallberry honey is their specialty.

When these plants aren't in season, Jason and Dawn move the bees to other flowering plants the bees can pollinate. They were just at four blueberry farms in Hernando County for pollination, for example.

"You have to chase the blooms," Dawn says, pointing out that orange season will only last a few more weeks.

• • •

This wasn't always Dawn's full-time job. Until recently, she worked for United Healthcare. But her mother has cancer, and she's had to take time off to travel to South Carolina to be with her mother through her surgery, radiation and chemo. She's there this week playing the caregiver role.

"When I get back from South Carolina, we're going to really push the business," she said.

Their goal is to double their bees this year, and then double it again next year. Eventually, they'd like to have a truck farm, a mobile means to sell their products. They're also working on creating a website.

Jason works for a commercial beekeeper, so he knows the ins and outs of the trade.

"I'm always trying to let the bees expand out the business," he said. "It's hard to get ahead because there's something that always has to be bought."

And it gets expensive. The stacks of boxes where the bees live are about $40 in wood. A truck to haul them is $50,000. A trailer is another $8,000. Then there are fees for licenses and inspections.

With most of their money going toward the bees, they have little left for anything else. They live in a small house. They have no air conditioning, no TV. Dawn spins yarn as a hobby. She's thinking of picking up weaving again.

"We're pretty low-key people," she said.

• • •

Jason begins to speak, and then stops short, shaking his head.

"Sorry, I had a bee on my face," he says.

The fuzzy insects zip all around him, landing on his clothes and his bare skin. But he doesn't seem to mind, even though he says he's been stung "more than a lot."

"I've worked bees a long time," he says. "I don't like getting stung, but it just kind of comes with it."

Satisfied with what they've seen in the hives, Jason and Dawn walk up the grassy trail back to their car. They admit that the career path they've chosen is unconventional, but they say it's possible to make a conventional living from beekeeping.

Still, it seems they aren't in it for the money.

"I do this because I enjoy it," Jason says. "It's something you can keep learning more about. You never truly master it."

Bee business is blossoming and all abuzz for Zephyrhills duo 03/08/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 8, 2011 8:15pm]

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