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Beloved St. Petersburg beekeeper dies at 54

Jeffrey Johnston was electrocuted while trying to remove a beehive at a Greater Woodlawn home.
Jeffrey Johnston, 54, had worked with bees since age 8. He died Wednesday morning after an accident while removing a beehive.
Jeffrey Johnston, 54, had worked with bees since age 8. He died Wednesday morning after an accident while removing a beehive. [ Courtesy of Jerick Johnston ]
Published Aug. 25
Updated Aug. 26

ST. PETERSBURG — A generations long tradition. A full-time job. Honey for cooking and grilling. An academic obsession, which he could talk about for hours.

These are just a few of the things that beekeeping provided for Jeffrey Johnston, a St. Petersburg resident and beekeeper since age 8.

“It was who he was, Jeffrey the bee guy,” said his oldest son, Jerick Johnston.

“He probably answered his phone like that,” the 25-year-old added jokingly.

On Wednesday morning, Johnston died doing what he loved. He was attempting to remove a beehive at a home in the Greater Woodlawn area, which belonged to a fellow member of his church, when he was electrocuted by a power line. Johnston was 54.

Jeffrey Johnston could talk to strangers for hours about the social behaviors of bees, his son recalled. He’d sometimes use honey as a substitute ingredient in his recipes, and he watched documentaries about bees. When his church needed a beehive removed, Johnston was the person they would call. He owned two bee yards, with around 15 hives at each one, according to his son.

In 2018, Jeffrey Johnston told the Tampa Bay Times he averaged about 700 bee removals per year. At the time, he said that the world is in a bee crisis, with the death of colonies that help support food supplies around the world and help create “pretty much every item on your local salad bar, except for the ranch dressing and bacon bits.”

In this 2019 file photo, Jeffrey Johnston, of St. Petersburg, is seen during a bee removal job. [Courtesy of Jeffrey Johnston]
In this 2019 file photo, Jeffrey Johnston, of St. Petersburg, is seen during a bee removal job. [Courtesy of Jeffrey Johnston]

In addition to his beekeeping career, Johnston also had worked in telecommunications and spent time working on software in the hospice field. He married his college sweetheart and had two sons and a daughter — his youngest child now is in college. He could always be found in the kitchen or at the grill. In particular, he loved to cook red meat and “never met a steak he didn’t love,” his son said.

“I think, to him, that was kind of time with his family,” said Jerick Johnston. Some of his favorite memories with his father include trips to North Carolina, where they would visit extended family.

Jeffrey Johnston was a member of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization. He volunteered at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in St. Petersburg, helping distribute communion at the church.

“He had a deeply spiritual side, was very interested in his faith,” recalled Monsignor Robert Gibbons, pastor of the church.

More than a decade ago, Keith Carnahan and Jeffrey Johnston became friends through their wives, who both worked at the church. Carnahan was a season ticket holder for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, and sometimes Johnston would accompany him to the soccer games. They liked trying different restaurants together and catching up over a pitcher of beer at their church festival. Johnston particularly loved Thai food, Carnahan recalled.

“He’s the kind of guy that was always there for people, you know,” Carnahan said. “He was very, very supportive and also very helpful.”