Diggin' Florida Dirt: Beehives offer unexpected rewards

Published Sept. 9, 2014

Talk about a buzz! Lucy Polak has discovered a new way to get wild.

"I squat next to my beehive and just watch," the financial analyst for Coca-Cola says. "I see bees bringing in pollen and fighting off other bees. I've seen them doing the little waggle dance (that says, 'We found flowers! Let's go!'). Sometimes they'll be carrying out dead bees."

And, even sweeter, she'll soon have almost 3 gallons of homemade honey .

Lucy, 47, lives in Tampa's Forest Hills neighborhood. Flowering plants fill her small front and back yards, and her wooden hive, painted yellow and white to match her house, occupies the narrow side yard between her garage and fence. Her honey harvest this month will be her first.

She is one of a growing number of Florida beekeepers, a trend that took wing after 2006, when beekeepers across the country raised the alarm about a cataclysmic problem: honeybee colony collapse disorder. U.S. European honeybee colonies were mysteriously vanishing, in turn focusing public attention on the vital role bees play in, well, everything.

Registered Florida beekeepers jumped from 900 to today's 3,400, says David Westervelt, state chief of apiary inspection. He and Tom Nolan, president of the Florida State Beekeepers Association, say the locavore and organic food movements also contribute, along with the rising price of honey.

All of the above led to yet another game changer. In 2012, Florida passed the Right to Farm Act, which prohibits local governments, except for homeowners associations, from banning backyard hives. At the time, Pinellas County and the city of Sarasota banned them, and Hillsborough had just legalized them.

"It's become accepted," David says. "You're always going to have what I call 'entomophobes' — people who are scared to death of anything that isn't human. But it's really gaining momentum."

Passionate educators do their part, too, he says. They include Brent Weisman, an advanced master beekeeper who teaches a low-cost, yearlong beekeeping course as a fundraiser for the University of South Florida Botanical Gardens.

Brent, a USF anthropology professor, taught the monthly class that led to Lucy becoming a Florida registered beekeeper last year. She graduates — for the second time — next month. "I'm doing it again because you always learn something new," she says. "Brent is a really good teacher!"

Those classes draw dozens of people, most of whom quickly drop out, Brent says.

Beekeeping is a commitment.

"You have to be fascinated by the bees. Honey can't be the main motivator," Brent says. "You've heard of the $50 tomato? You could be producing honey for $30 a pound."

Beekeepers become managers of complex colonies of wildlife, he says. There's work involved.

They have to watch for diseases and pests. If blooms are in short supply, say, after a freeze, they have to feed their colonies.

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And they've got to support the bees' intricate communication system, like the "waggle dance." It's the foundation for their fascinating ability to work as a single organism. The smallest disruption can spell disaster — and colony collapse disorder.

Lucy lost her first colony to hive beetles. Tragic — but not her fault. "There are all kinds of problems that can occur; that's why you need to open the hive and check it every two or three weeks," she says.

Expect stings, too.

"It only hurts for a couple minutes," Lucy says.

If you're thinking about beekeeping simply to improve pollination in your garden, don't. You can't count on European honeybees to do their business in your yard, Brent says. "They'll fly 2 miles away and completely ignore your squash blossoms."

Instead, invite native bees, he says.

"There are all kinds of bees, little green bees and blue bees. Bumblebees are fantastic pollinators. Create habitats for them to lay eggs."

You can find lots of instructions online., for example, has directions for creating nesting sites.

Should you decide that hosting native bees pales to the high of managing European bees, take a course, Brent advises. But be warned: You could be entering a danger zone.

"Bees don't give you affection. You can't pet them," he says. "But they can become an obsession."