Charlotte County Florida Weekly

A business a buzz

A new study shows that the Florida beekeeping industry generates an estimated $93 million in total revenue.


 

 

DOWN A LONG DIRT ROAD lined heavily with native subtropical vegetation, a small white house appears.

This home in rural Lee County belongs to Dennis Riggs, president of the Beekeepers Association of Southwest Florida.

This is also home to thousands of what Mr. Riggs calls “the No. 1 insect in all of creation”: the tiny but mighty honeybee.

Mr. Riggs, a hobbyist or “backyard” beekeeper, has only eight hives in his backyard, and oversees an additional four for a student he mentors. But the average beehive can be home to a colony of 20,000 to 80,000 bees.

A worker honeybee weighs only one-tenth of a gram. To provide some perspective, a few items that weigh one full gram are a paper clip, a thumbtack or a raisin.

On their fragile wings rests the fate of a Florida beekeeping industry that brought in an estimated $93.36 million in total revenues in 2020, according to a newly-completed study commissioned for the Florida State Beekeepers Association. It’s the first study done in 20 years for its beekeepers, which include commercial and hobbyist beekeepers, said Lee Wisnioski of Palm Beach County, association treasurer.

The revenue comes from an estimated $60.35 million in sales of honeybee products and $33.29 million in crop pollination services, both within Florida and in other states. The study, compiled by the Food and Resource Economics Department of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural services, will be released in August.

Beekeepers wax eloquent about their bees’ complex society, behavior and what they provide agriculturally, economically and environmentally. “They’re amazing,” Mr. Riggs said. “And when I start telling people about some of the things they do, it’s just jaw-dropping because most people, when they think of bees, they just think of they make honey and they pollinate and they buzz. They sting occasionally.”

Naples Beekeeper Ron Bender uses a “smoker” to puff smoke over the bees as he opens the top of the hive, called a super. The smoke covers up the bees’ alarm pheromone and makes them easier to handle. The smoker is a metal container with a cone on top that burns pine needles and wood chips. PHOTO COURTESY OF RON BENDER, NAPLESBEES.COM

Naples Beekeeper Ron Bender uses a “smoker” to puff smoke over the bees as he opens the top of the hive, called a super. The smoke covers up the bees’ alarm pheromone and makes them easier to handle. The smoker is a metal container with a cone on top that burns pine needles and wood chips. PHOTO COURTESY OF RON BENDER, NAPLESBEES.COM

So honeybees are essential. They are also vulnerable, in Florida and nationwide.

They face challenges from insect pests, maintaining the quality of queen bees, poor nutrition and pesticides, science and research experts and beekeepers say. They also face significant losses of bee colonies annually, most recently in the 2020-2021 year, an average of about 45.5% nationwide and in Florida, 47%. Nathalie Steinhauer, research coordinator for the Bee Informed Partnership, believes that healthwise, honeybees are in crisis. The nonprofit partnership works alongside beekeepers to improve honeybee colony health and survival across the United States. There are about 4,000 species of bees in the U.S., Ms. Steinhauer said. But when we’re talking beekeeping and the bee industry, we’re talking about the European or western honeybee (Apis mellifera) brought here in the early 1600s by European settlers.

WISNIOSKI

WISNIOSKI

Nationally, more than one-third of all crop production — 90 crops ranging from nuts to berries to flowering vegetables — requires insect pollination, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Honeybee colonies, managed by backyard and commercial beekeepers, are the primary pollinators, adding at least $15 billion a year by increasing yields and helping provide quality harvests. The crops honeybees pollinate include almonds, apples, cranberries, blueberries, raspberries, watermelon and other melons, cucumbers, onions, broccoli, pumpkins, squash and more.

Mr. Wisnioski said the new study shows that aside from nearly $100 million in revenue, the value of increased crop production attributed to honeybee pollination on 36,000 acres of specialty crops in Florida was $237 million. Florida hives sent to other states for pollination services on about 90,000 acres of crops generated $514 million in crop production value.

Beekeeper Dennis Riggs of Alva works with one of his hives, keeping a smoker nearby. MARY WOZNIAK /FLORIDA WEEKLY

Beekeeper Dennis Riggs of Alva works with one of his hives, keeping a smoker nearby. MARY WOZNIAK /FLORIDA WEEKLY

Capital investments by Florida beekeepers in 2020 for hives, equipment, buildings, and other assets were estimated at $17 million.

In addition, beekeeping also accounted for an estimated 2,303 full-time and part-time jobs, with about $24 million in labor income, the study says. Yet Mr. Wisnioski said that in Florida, unlike the cattle or citrus industries, there is not enough recognition of its importance. That’s why they wanted the new study — to generate more support. “The only way to get the Legislature to understand is to show how economically important it is,” he said.

Lost colonies

The honeybee industry in the United States is loosely divided into three groups of beekeepers: backyard (managing fewer than 50 colonies), sideliner (managing 51-500), and commercial (managing 501 or more colonies), according to the Bee Informed Partnership.

STEINHAUER

STEINHAUER

Colonies are family groups of bees. The hive is the structure in which the colony lives. An apiary is a collection of beehives.

Pollination is where the most profit is for beekeepers, eclipsing honey production. Florida and other states transport thousands of hives to various crops, both in-state and across the country. For example, the $6 billion almond crop in California requires 2 million honeybee colonies to pollinate.

The vast majority of bee colonies belong to commercial keepers, who may have 10,000 or 20,000 or more hives each. But the vast majority of beekeepers are the backyard and sideliners with small apiaries.

There has been a drastic loss of colonies in the U.S. over the past 60 years, from about 6 million in the 1940s to about 2.6 million in the early 2000s. Ms. Steinhauer thinks this is mostly due to economic factors and a lot of beekeepers leaving the industry. “But since then, the population has remained relatively stable at about 2.6 million colonies for the last 20 years,” she said.

ELLIS

ELLIS

The annual colony losses of beekeepers are another issue.

The Bee Informed Partnership has conducted an annual National Colony Loss and Management Survey among beekeepers, with the support of the Apiary Inspectors of America, since 2007. The survey provides a snapshot of the state of the industry and identifies risk factors and protective measures associated with beekeeping management. Ms. Steinhauer is the lead author on the latest report, “United States Honeybee Colony Losses 2020-2021.”

The report, which covers April 2020 to April 2021, showed that beekeepers in the U.S. lost an average of 45.5% of their managed honeybee colonies, the second-highest annual loss on record. The overall average loss in the U.S. since the surveys began is 40%.

Yet despite the reported losses, the 2.6 million honeybee colonies is a number that remains relatively steady.

A worker bee sucks nectar from a flower, showing pollen sacs or “baskets” on its legs full of yellow pollen. COURTESY PHOTO

A worker bee sucks nectar from a flower, showing pollen sacs or “baskets” on its legs full of yellow pollen. COURTESY PHOTO

Jamie Ellis is director of the Honey Bee Research and Extension Laboratory at the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. The laboratory’s mission is to advance the understanding and improve the health of honeybees in Florida, the U.S. and globally.

“The number itself is, we think, relatively accurate,” Mr. Ellis said of the average 40% loss. “So what I mean by that is the Bee Informed Partnership keeps up with information related to colony losses.” But the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), also looks at the total number of honeybee colonies in the U.S. and you can calculate losses on a year-to-year basis as well, he said. If you calculate the average net change in colony numbers starting in 2006 using the NASS data, you get a net average yearly increase of about 1% a year, he said.

How can bee colonies show a 40% loss overall and have a net gain of 1% at the same time?

Dennis Riggs, president of the Beekeepers Association of Southwest Florida, holds a frame of bees, busy at work, from one of his hives. He feels so comfortable with his eight hives that he works with them without donning a bee suit for protection. MARY WOZNIAK / FLORIDA WEEKLY

Dennis Riggs, president of the Beekeepers Association of Southwest Florida, holds a frame of bees, busy at work, from one of his hives. He feels so comfortable with his eight hives that he works with them without donning a bee suit for protection. MARY WOZNIAK / FLORIDA WEEKLY

It turns out both can be simultaneously true, Mr. Ellis said.

In effect, beekeepers have been working hard to recover their losses by splitting bee colonies to create new colonies and buying more nucleus colonies, called nucs, to make up the difference. They have succeeded to the point where they have more than offset the losses, leading to the 1% increase.

The NASS data reports net numbers. The Bee Informed Partnership data reports gross losses or gross changes. “So over the last 16 or so years, we’ve actually averaged a net increase every year, even though we’ve got 40% or so gross loss rates,” Mr. Ellis said.

This is possible only because pollination and honey prices at the moment are reasonable and it’s economically feasible to recover losses this way, he said. But any agriculture commodity that loses 40% of its production units every year is not sustainable in the long term, because any blip in the beekeeping market could turn those gross losses into net losses, he said. “And then we’ve got a problem.”

A closeup of a frame of bees from one of Naples beekeeper Ron Bender’s hives shows the worker bees busily building comb to house the brood (larvae, pupae, eggs), bee bread and honey for the hive. The hexagonal cells of the comb have walls that are 2/1000 inch thick but support 25 times their own weight. PHOTO COURTESY OF RON BENDER

A closeup of a frame of bees from one of Naples beekeeper Ron Bender’s hives shows the worker bees busily building comb to house the brood (larvae, pupae, eggs), bee bread and honey for the hive. The hexagonal cells of the comb have walls that are 2/1000 inch thick but support 25 times their own weight. PHOTO COURTESY OF RON BENDER

It’s not clear if 40% overall loss is a normal amount of loss, because there is no historical data of loss rates that exists before the Bee Informed Partnership started its survey in 2007 to compare it to.

“My gut feeling is that a 40% loss rate is high,” Mr. Ellis said.

Nutritional needs

Maybe bees don’t get the appreciation they should, but “they certainly are getting more appreciation maybe than they ever have,” Mr. Ellis said. “And I think that that’s been a very positive development.” When he was young and began working with bees, no one knew much about bees at all, he said. “They didn’t make the news.”

The principal problems beekeepers mention as causing colony loss include varroa mites, the quality of queens and nutrition, Mr. Ellis said.

The varroa mite, which feeds on and transmits viruses to bees, is “probably the most significant biological threat to honeybees,” he said.

BENDER

BENDER

Queen quality is important because every colony is led by a queen who’s responsible for producing all the hive’s offspring, he said. “If she is short-lived, if she mates poorly, if she’s inbred, if she is maimed in some way, if she harbors a lot of diseases and pest, or if she’s conferring genes to her offspring that make her offspring defensive or not productive,” beekeepers must manage that actively, he said.

Nutrition is also important. “We’re moving honeybees to areas where they pollinate a single crop for six weeks,” Mr. Ellis said. “And so they’re getting exposed to a single pollen type or a single nectar type.” The crops they are taken to for pollination may not produce copious amounts of high quality nectar or pollen, he said.

If you leave honeybees completely alone, they might spread out to a density of one colony per square kilometer or maybe one colony per two kilometers, he said. “But in a management scenario, we’re putting 30 or 40 colonies in the same apiary, which is not something honeybees would ever do. So you’re upping the density. And there’s only a limited amount of resources available in the environment.”

VU

VU

Just like humans, bees need carbohydrates and protein, said Amy Vu, the UF/IFAS State Specialized Program Extension Agent in Apiculture, who oversees all Extension activities related to honeybees and beekeeping. Nectar is their carbohydrate source, and pollen is protein, she said

“So having that balanced diet of having their carbohydrates and their protein is extremely important in the colony and just bringing those resources in,” she said. So beekeepers may feed their honeybees sugar water, which is meant for their carbohydrate alternative and “pollen patties” or different pollen substitutes for protein, she said.

The lack of forage is very, very important,” Ms. Steinhauer said. Because of it, there is some worry that there is a competition between native bees and honeybees, she said. “It’s sad, too, that we are reaching the point that we are missing so much natural landscape that we are putting species in competition. When the solution is just, we should give them more space.”

 

 

One of the main initiatives of the Florida State Beekeepers Association is working with the state to open up public land for honeybee foraging, said John Coldwell, association president.

Mr. Wisnioski is head of an association committee that is working with the Southwest Florida Water Management District to arrive at an agreement to open publicly owned land to beekeeping. This would include all county lands, including parks, he said. This will help foraging issues. The goal is to set up a pilot program that will be a model for other water management districts in Florida, Mr. Wisnioski said.

Beekeepers also list weather yearly when surveyed about the top five killers of honeybees, Mr. Ellis said. “I can’t create something in my lab that you can put in your hive and control bad weather,” he said. But “it illustrates the point that regardless of the side of the fence that one sits with climate change in our industry, beekeepers recognize that bad weather, however packaged, is a significant killer of bees.” That could be too cold in the north, too hot and wet in the south and southeast, too dry in the southwest, hurricanes in Florida, he said. “I mean, it’s just that so many weather conditions are responsible for the loss of honeybee colonies regardless of where you keep bees on planet Earth.”

 

 

Ms. Steinhauer agrees with the principal challenges to bee colonies cited by Mr. Ellis, but adds pesticides and lack of diverse areas for bees to forage for pollen and nectar.

Ron Bender, a backyard beekeeper in Naples, is familiar with pesticides and the damage they can do. He’s a retired electronics engineer, Vietnam-era U.S. Army vet and former skydiving instructor. He’s been doing backyard beekeeping for eight years. “I’ve been pretty successful keeping bees, but it is sometimes not easy, considering weather and especially given the high use of pesticides Naples area folks seem to use on their manicured lawns.” he said.

A queen from this beehive has a dab of yellow paint to make her more identifiable among the others. MARY WOZNIAK / FLORIDA WEEKLY

A queen from this beehive has a dab of yellow paint to make her more identifiable among the others. MARY WOZNIAK / FLORIDA WEEKLY

“The bees go out and forage and they bring that poison back to the hive and that can kill the hive off,” he said. “And then we have the mosquito control spraying that goes on. And they do have a warning system that you can sign up for.” When he knows the mosquito plane is coming over, he goes out and covers his hives with fabric, old parachute material, to keep the spray mist off. “It’s a short-lived pesticide and it breaks down pretty quick,” he said.

He recalls an incident when he lost a half-dozen hives due to lawn maintenance people spraying in the neighborhood. “It was one of those things I came out in the morning and there were literally thousands and thousands and thousands of dead bees on the ground, just completely wiped out. So it is a problem.”

 

 

Mr. Bender is a registered beekeeper with the State Agriculture Department, as all beekeepers in Florida must be.

“There are apiary inspectors that are on the ground and they have different districts,” Ms. Vu said. “They cover multiple counties and basically work with beekeepers to make sure that they’re compliant with the state rules and regulations.”

Ms. Vu is a faculty member and also runs the University of Florida Master Beekeeper Program and the increasingly popular University of Florida’s Bee College. The next two-day college session, for beginner to advanced beekeepers will be held Aug. 12-13 at the Florida State University Panama City campus.

The head of the Apiary Inspection Program is Branden Stanford. The state inspectors work to prevent honeybee pests and diseases from being introduced or establishing in bee colonies. They also certify the movement of honeybee colonies throughout the state and across Florida state lines.

There are currently 5,165 beekeepers in Florida, according to the FDACS website. About 85% are backyard beekeepers.

There are 600,000 to 630,000 colonies in Florida, Mr. Stanford said. The vast majority of them, about 85%, are owned by commercial beekeepers. The number at any given time depends on how and when beekeepers are coming and going, not only in-state apiaries, but from other states.

About 25% of the nation’s bee colonies come through Florida at one point, often coming from characteristic snowbird states, like Michigan, Ohio, New York and elsewhere, Mr. Stanford said. Instead of snowbirds, these are snowbees. They winter in Florida to strengthen and build up to get a jump on the next pollination season, he said. Theoretically, they will lose fewer colonies in the Florida warmth than if they remained in the cold winter weather up north.

Unlike commercial beekeepers, who are focused on working their business and making profits, the backyard beekeepers create a connection with their bees.

After 22 years as a beekeeper, Dennis Riggs knows his bees. They know him. So much so that he does not wear a bee suit when working with them. On a recent July morning, he approached his hives carefully from behind, all the while puffing smoke from a smoker. The smoker is a metal device that blunts a pheromone the honeybee emits when sensing a coming attack. Mr. Riggs’ smoker has a special mix that burns dried banana leaves, Spanish moss and brown butcher paper wrapping. It’s his own blend. Most beekeepers use pine needles or wood chips, but Mr. Riggs doesn’t have any pine trees.

He opens a box in the hive containing the “brood,” or bee nursery.

He slowly takes out wooden frames lined up next to each other to show the arcs of honey, pollen and nectar below the arc, and some of the brood, or baby bees: eggs, larvae, pupae, all in tiny, hexagonal cells made of wax secreted from the underbelly of worker bees. He points out the queen — bearing a yellow dab of paint so she can be more easily spotted in the hive. “Beekeeping I find soothing and relaxing and it just calms you. It’s peaceful,” he said. “And that’s what I’m trying to convey to those that I mentor.”

Mr. Riggs is president of the Beekeepers Association of Southwest Florida, a group focused on educating people who don’t know anything about bees and turning them into hobbyist beekeepers, he said. The group has about 25 to 30 active members.

Hooked on honeybees

Mr. Riggs is not alone in his homage to the honeybee.

Others use words like hooked, addicted, calm and karma, to describe how bees and beekeeping affects them.

“It’s a passion,” said John Coldwell, president of the Florida State Beekeepers Association. “It’s like really kind of a zen, ethereal process when you open up the beehive and understand what’s going on there.”

Mr. Coldwell is a commercial beekeeper with 700 or 800 hives. He manufactures and distributes honeybee equipment, raises bees to expand his colonies and sells bees to commercial bee operations that do California pollination. He is also one of the largest bee rescue contractors in the state. On the side, he sells bee products.

The association’s job is to represent the best interests of beekeepers, both hobbyist and commercial, he said. The organization is also a primary funder and promoter of the Honey Bee Research and Extension Laboratory at the University of Florida, he said.

Mr. Bender cheerfully admits he’s addicted. “But there’s a lot of fun and something new every day.” He calls his bees his “ladies,” because 99% of the hives are made up of female worker bees. “The hives have individual characteristics and it’s almost like having pets, I guess,” he said. “The collective intelligence of the hive is totally fascinating in what they do as a hive and the decisions they make.” Mr. Bender has set up “bee cams” so he can monitor his 23 hives from his office. He harvests lots of honey and wax.

Mr. Bender also belongs to a small group of backyard beekeepers called Bee Boyz and Girlz. “It is not a club, but rather just a growing group of area beekeepers who get together once in a while at someone’s apiary to talk bees, deliver a relocated hive or help in some apiary task,” he said. The group includes people from all walks of life, including a pharmacist, an FAA inspector, a retired ship captain and a roofing contractor. Mr. Wisnioski, an osteopath who lives in Palm Beach County, is treasurer of the Florida State Beekeepers Association and a member and past president of the Palm Beach County Beekeepers Association, which has “roughly 200 paid members and another 1,100 online members,” he said.

He categorizes himself “in between” a commercial and backyard beekeeper. He has about 50 hives, but works with another person to manage hives and leases hives to individuals. He also sent 400 hives to California to help pollinate crops.

Mr. Wisnioski just celebrated his 20th wedding anniversary. When he married, he didn’t own any bees. But he and his wife had figures of two farmers on the top of the cake and bees depicted on his wedding cake.

Finally the couple bought two hives. “Jokingly we say we got bit by the bug,” he said.

What does the future of honeybees look like?

“I want to be an optimist, but sometimes it’s hard in the world we’re living on right now,” Ms. Steinhauer said. “When you talk about all the factors that affect honeybee health, like parasites, disease, pesticides and poor nutrition, “sometimes you can see that as a cycle of doom, that each of those is like death by a thousand cuts.

“The optimistic side of it is that a lot of species are extremely resilient,” she said. Better bee management practices, monitoring for parasites, proper nutrition, reducing the use of pesticides as much as you can and removing as many stressors from bees that you can will make them able to withstand other stressors that you can’t control, she said. ¦

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