Beekeeper Steve Grande returned from a trip to find millions of his honeybees dead and dying in mangroves near Apollo Beach. Up above, Grande says, he saw a Hillsborough County Mosquito Control plane completing its early morning mission, spewing clouds of the deadly insecticide Dibrom-14.
Did the county kill Grande's bees, and with it his chances for a bumper crop of honey?
The answer likely will be provided by a state laboratory analysis of thousands of the winged insects, a sort of bee autopsy to determine who or what wiped out an estimated 33-million bees.
"This could take a week or two," said John Fareed, Hillsborough County's risk manager.
Grande of Brandon said he lost about $150,000 worth of bees and honey last Wednesday. The dead bees weigh some 10,000 pounds.
He wants swift justice, not a runaround. "This should be a top priority because of the severity of the damages," he said.
Laurence Cutts, chief bee inspector for the state Department of Agriculture, is sympathetic. "It is probably more upsetting to a beekeeper than people realize," said Cutts, himself a third-generation beekeeper.
"Beekeepers have a love affair with their bees. Their bees are their pets and their livelihood. Women leave men because of bees. There have been divorces because of men's dedication and fascination with bees."
In fact, beekeeping is big business here. Florida was the nation's No. 1 honeymaking state last year, producing some 20-million pounds of honey worth more than $10-million, Cutts said.
Grande's livelihood is not all that's at stake. In the inevitable clash between people who kill bugs and those who keep them, Hillsborough has stood out as a model of cooperation.
"Hillsborough County has been an example of how mosquito spraying does not have to damage bees," Cutts said, though Grande disagrees with that assessment.
As in so many whodunits, there are a few discrepancies between Grande's story and Mosquito Control's.
According to Mosquito Control Director Dan Gorman, the May 29 spraying lasted until 6:15 a.m. But Grande says he saw the plane spray as late as 6:55. That's important because, according to Cutts, Dibrom generally does not harm bees if it is sprayed at night, when bees are in or near their hives.
Sunrise that day was at 6:36.
Grande concedes that county officials called ahead to warn him that they were about to spray. But, because he was out of town, he did not receive the message until too late. He said the county should not spray any later than 4 a.m. to avoid such disasters.
Grande made a similar complaint two years ago. That complaint was dropped after officials said Grande could not prove Mosquito Control officials killed his bees.
This time, officials rushed to the scene to gather bee samples. A state lab will perform sort of a bee autopsy to see if they contain traces of the insecticide.
"If the lab shows Dibrom, that will certainly implicate the county," Cutts said.
The analysis might be delayed if the lab is too busy, Fareed said.
That's not the only complication. Officials caution that Dibrom breaks down quickly after it is sprayed. In fact, they like the fast-disappearing Dibrom because they say it does little damage to the environment.
Grande, meanwhile, is urging county officials to ban all mosquito spraying until the county can protect the bees.
Gorman, though reluctant to discuss the case while it's under investigation, said his department has tried to respect the bees and their keepers.
"We do whatever we can to work with the beekeepers," he said. "We're not out there to kill bees."