It’s not hard to get miserable reading news about the honey bees. Responsible for the pollination of much of our food supply, the bees are under threat from pesticides, a troublesome mite and a mysterious disease. But locally, there’s lots of good news, too: Beekeeping has grown exponentially in the past few years. A few Martin County experts have begun a quest to help the bees, so the honey bee might just be poised for a major comeback. What does this mean, and should we still be worried about the apiaries? We compiled seven things you need to know about honey bees in Martin County.
It’s the Golden Age of Beekeeping
Right now in Florida, far more people are tending to far more bees than ever before. In 2009, the state had more than 1,450 registered beekeepers, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. By 2019, that number had grown to more than 4,730. In 2009, those beekeepers managed 230,000 hives, a number that today has grown to 630,000—meaning the number of beehives has nearly tripled in the past decade. In Martin County alone, 44 beekeepers have registered with the state, keeping 4,000 colonies.
In Martin County, the number of backyard beekeepers seems to grow every year as more people become aware of the threats to the honey bee. Jennifer Holmes, with the Hani Honey Company in Stuart, says that in the 15 years she’s been keeping bees, she has watched the local clubs and meet-ups grow in size as more people get interested in it.
And Now for the Bad News
While the number of beekeepers and honey bee colonies increase, so do the losses. Studies suggest 40 percent of bee colonies are dying every year from a combination of challenges they face nowadays.
“People need to be concerned about this,” Vu says. “We have a huge number of colonies these days, so it’s not as bad as it could be. But yes, beekeepers are losing a lot of colonies.”
The numbers this year for Holmes were hard to stomach. She took her first “Beekeeping 101” class 15 years ago and started a commercial beekeeping operation not long after. She typically maintains about 300 hives kept mostly at farms throughout Martin County. Her largest concentration of 75 to 150 hives are kept at Palm City Farms, where her honey is sold at the retail store. In 2019, she lost half of them to a series of threats, some to a varroa mite that’s nearly impossible to eradicate.
“This year, 2019, was a really tough year. It’s hard not to get emotional when you see an entire hive die,” Holmes says.
Nationwide, things aren’t as good as they are in Florida. Honey bee colonies managed by people declined from 6 million in 1947 to just 2.5 million today, according to the USDA. Colony collapse disorder is a big factor—about a quarter of all honey bee hives died in the winter of 2006-2007.
Whatever is killing the bees also threatens other pollinator populations, including butterflies. Monarchs alone have dropped by 84 percent.
The threats to bees have a serious potential impact on humans. Without bees, three-quarters of the world’s food crops would not continue to be farmed, including chocolate, coffee, avocados and most berries.
With all the threats to bees these days, Holmes estimates it’s five times harder to keep honey bees alive.
Most Likely, You Shouldn’t Start Beekeeping
It might seem like the easiest answer to the threat to bees was that everyone should become an apiarist. But for most people, Holmes says, it’s too much work.
It’s not that beekeeping is too time-consuming. For most people, it takes no more than a half-hour every two or three weeks. Then it’ll require a few hours a year to prevent the hive from swarming, where a portion of the hive will fly off to start a new colony elsewhere, perhaps in a neighbor’s roof.
But for many, Vu says, they can’t dedicate the time to research the problems hives face. When it’s that time for a hive to swarm in the spring, backyard beekeepers must be able to predict the behavior and figure out the steps to prevent it from happening.
“I never just jump into saying everybody should become a beekeeper,” Vu says. “The answer to the threats facing honey bees is not just simply more colonies.”
What Non-Beekeepers Can Do
Among the biggest threats to bees these days are pesticides, which can be carried back on foragers alongside pollen and be passed through the hive until the entire colony perishes.
To prevent that, Holmes says to reduce or avoid spraying yards with chemicals, switching instead to organic fertilizers that are safe for pollinators. Instead of spraying for mosquitos or using “bombs” that spread deadly chemicals in clouds, reduce standing water where mosquitos breed.
Homeowners can also have water sources in their yards that bees can use to drink, ideally with moving water like from a fountain to prevent mosquitos. Landscaping with plants that produce pollen year-round helps bees as well, Vu says.
“Just by putting pollen-producing plants in your yard, you can do a lot to save the bees.”
Rescue Wayward Colonies
If you find a bee swarm in your yard or a colony somewhere it isn’t wanted, don’t try to kill it. It’s likely the colony can find a new home elsewhere.
Rescuing wayward colonies is something that’s almost always possible when bees set up their residence in trees or homes, says Don Sloane, who retired from the city of Stuart’s sanitation department two years ago and soon became an avid beekeeper.
Sloane adopted the hobby after his son had a baby and no longer had time for his backyard hive. He soon became addicted to it and started rescuing unwanted hives. “It’s kind of the coolest thing I’ve ever done, to tell you the truth,” Sloane says.
He estimates he saves three to four hives a week now throughout Martin County, charging people his costs on a sliding scale of how much they can pay, from $175 for an easy job to $385 for a difficult removal from a wall.
“I get a lot of calls from elderly people, and I just don’t charge them anything,” Sloane says. “For me, it’s more about saving the bees.”
Once the hive is safely removed, Sloane either tries to find a backyard beekeeper to adopt them or sells them to commercial honey bee companies for $150 a pop.
He says his project to save the bees has to be far more of a priority. “Once the bees are gone,” Sloane says, “we’re gone.”
OK, So You Want to Become a Beekeeper
If the time and the research needed for a colony isn’t daunting for you, it’s not hard to begin. Beehives can be bought online and mailed to you, and the equipment needed (protective suit, smoker, hive tool) is also available from online retailers like Amazon. All in, you should spend under $500.
In addition to the online route, beehives can also be purchased through rescuers like Sloane or from commercial operations like Holmes’ Hani Honey Company. There’s a marked benefit to buying local bees, too, because they’re more likely to be acclimated to the local climate and already know the pollen-producing plants.
Groups including the Treasure Coast Beekeepers Association have regular meet-ups to help new beekeepers solve problems in their colonies, like how to treat for mites or prevent swarming. University of Florida even offers a Bee College for apiarists, who can go on to become certified Master Beekeepers.
For Holmes, beekeeping provides an endless fascination with trying to understand a creature so surprisingly complex.
“When you open a beehive, you have to use the word magical,” Holmes says. “Anybody who cares about nature or creation has to be interested in bees.”
There’s also a problem-solving aspect of beekeeping, where apiarists have to diagnose a colony’s successes and failures, Holmes says. For instance, a colony might suddenly see a drop in the production of a new bee or honey, or both, and the beekeeper has to decide which measures—if any—to take to make sure the change isn’t fatal for the colony. “We have this dance we do to keep the bees alive,” Holmes says.
Martin County’s Honey is Legendary
There are several types of honey well-known to consumers: tupelo, orange blossom and mango are among them. But one of the most popular varieties of honey in Martin County just might beat them in taste, Holmes says.
Found throughout Martin County, the saw palmetto is a low-lying brush plant with sharp leaves that look like spindly palm fronds. It flowers in spring and early summer, with spindly flowers that look like rows of fluffy pipe cleaners. When in bloom, bees will swarm the saw palmetto flowers. From its pollen, they’ll make honey that Holmes says is light and mild, with a distinct flavor like no other honey, malty and caramel with a bit of spice and an amber color.
Holmes should know. She’s studying honey analysis through a school in Bologna, Italy, that will give her a degree like a sommelier of honey. She traveled to Italy in October for one of her palate tests, which have required her to identify a honey’s level of salt, sweet and bitterness. Advanced lessons will require her to figure out what type of flower the bees used to make the honey and even the region, eventually going right down to blends from multiple places.
Even with her internationally tested palate, Holmes still believes in the honey produced in Martin County.
“I think saw palmetto honey just might be the tastiest of all the honeys,” she says.
Eric Barton is a former Stuart News reporter, a freelance journalist and, for the past couple years, an amateur beekeeper. He volunteers with a honey bee rescue group called the Happy Bee Honey Club and says the rare sting is offset by that sweet backyard honey.