Florida's Trying to Save Its Bees

by | September 16, 2014

By Jenny Staletovich

After reading about the woeful state of honeybees and a new Florida law to foster backyard hives, Marcie Davis launched a simple, well-intentioned mission: become a foster mother to a dozen hives in her one-acre Kendall yard, cultivate a little honey and spread the word about their alarming decline.

Getting in a legal fight with Miami-Dade County was not part of the plan. "I thought I was street legal because of the new law," Davis said.

But that would depend on the street. The county decided its code limiting the number of hives trumped state law and a yearlong skirmish ensued with Davis and the county sparring over whether her backyard constituted what the state considered "land integral to beekeeping." Last week, the county backed off and dropped the case.

"We felt like we were on a mission from God here," Davis said. "God save the queen."

The decision was a victory, but a small one in the bigger war to save the honeybee. Over the past decade, disease, extreme weather, loss of foraging grounds, an invasion of Africanized bees and even bad publicity have created a perfect storm of peril for honey bees. About 30 percent of the nation's bees are dying every year, nearly double historic numbers, although last year the decline slowed slightly, beekeepers say.

The crisis has also drawn attention to the misuse of pesticides and raised questions about massive plantings of single crops -- or mono-cultures -- that have caused problems for all pollinators including butterflies, moths, bats and hummingbirds. In June, concern over a national food crisis -- honeybees pollinate 90 percent of the country's commercial crops -- prompted the Obama administration to add $50 million to its budget and convene a special task force to save pollinators.

The crisis has hit Florida especially hard, where honey has long been one of the state's more successful if lesser known crops.

With something blooming 11 months out of the year and nectar available in fields, yards and almost any open space, the flow of honey hardly ever stops, placing the state among the nation's top five honey producers.

Beekeepers can take their pick from gallberry, citrus, tupelo, saw palmetto, melaleuca, Brazilian pepper and cabbage palm. Avocado produces a dark tarry honey that's hard to swallow on its own, but delicious when bees mix it with tropical flowers.

Florida beekeepers also export their bees, leasing hives to help pollinate crops in about 27 states, said David Westervelt, assistant chief of the state's Bureau of Plant and Apiary inspection, a unit formed in 1919 and one of the oldest in the country. Thousands aid the massive California almond pollination that produces 80 percent of the world's supply and annually draws more than a million hives, a good share of the nation's bee supply. Gypsy beekeepers, meanwhile, who chase honey flows across the country, flock to the state, managing a business that depends as much on art as science.

"Most people don't know hundreds of thousands of bees are moved on semis all over the place," Westervelt said.

But by 2007, only 700 beekeepers were registered in Florida, said University of Florida entomologist William H. Kern, Jr.

"The commercial guys just all went out of business in the mid 2000s because of all this stuff. They couldn't make a profit because all their bees were dying," said Aaron Mullins, another University of Florida senior biological scientist.

This "stuff" was a combination of pesticides, invasive pests and vast swaths of sugar cane fields and golf courses that gobble up natural foraging grounds.

"Those are deserts for bees," Mullins said.

So in 2012, the state changed laws to encourage backyard hives. The hope, scientists say, is to build a first line of defense against pest infestation and Africanized bees that dominate the feral bee population. The response was swift. Since last year, the number of beekeepers jumped from 900 to 3,000, Westervelt said. The number of hives has nearly doubled from 240,000 to 400,000.

Most new beekeepers are what longtime apiarists call "wannabees," backyard hobbyists who tend to follow the organic, local food movement and cut a sharply different figure from the old commercial apiarists, who are mostly older farmers nearing retirement, said Al Salopek, president of the Palm Beach County Beekeeper's Association. It's an odd marriage that might be the salvation for the imperiled bees.

"If mom and dad are keeping bees in the backyard, the kids are exposed and there's a chance they'll fall into the industry," Salopek said.

John Gentzel, a commercial apiarist in Homestead, started tending bees as a teenager in the 1960s after his mother found a hive in a croton bush outside their South Dade house. He learned the trade through his school's Future Farmers of America chapter and once managed more than a thousand hives tucked into fields and yards from Homestead to Fort Myers to Big Pine Key. Today his Homestead house -- filled with drums and specialized equipment -- serves as his production plant.

"I used to break state averages," said Gentzel, who now uses a cane.

"Thirty or forty years ago, we were all over the place. The only thing you had to worry about was the queen dying."

Then his bees started acting funny. They'd venture out to forage and get lost on their way back to the hive. Bloodsucking mites appeared, clinging to their backs. Bees are tidy and obsessively orderly, grooming one another and lining hives with a sticky glue loaded with antibiotics. But they couldn't shake the mites that infested hives with fatal viruses. While colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon where bees simply vanish from their hives, has made the biggest headlines, scientists say solving the riddle of dying bees is more complex.

In the United States and Florida, there are two kinds of honeybees: domesticated and feral. Europeans first brought honeybees to North America. But four centuries of domestication has likely weakened the species.

"Like any animal that's domesticated, it loses some of its defensive ability," Kern said.

So in the 1950s, a scientist hoping to produce a tougher tropical bee tried breeding South African bees with European bees in Brazil. Instead, he hatched a public relations nightmare. Some African queens escaped, triggering what Mullins calls the most successful species invasion ever.

By the 1990s, more aggressive Africanized bees showed up in North America and eventually Florida about 2005, Kern said. The killer bees had arrived. Illegal to keep in Florida, Africanized bees live up to their name. When disturbed, the entire hive will attack -- the Europeans, by contrast, are happy to send a few workers to scout out trouble. And when they sting, they leave behind a stinger with a homing beacon to draw other bees.

So convincing the public that more bees is a good thing has been a tough slog, said Kern, who is working with Africanized bees under a special permit.

But apiarists keep preaching the message: more European bees, both queens and male drones, can dilute the feral population. And state-regulated hives mean inspectors can flag an Africanized hive and order the beekeeper to replace the queen with a fresh, gentler European. Gloria Balboa and her husband Jorge Prieto who sell bee supplies and keep hives near Homestead like Italian queens. Gentzel prefers Russians.

Tougher to tackle is the urban sprawl that scientists say wiped out foraging grounds.

"Look around us, especially here in Florida," said Palm Beach beekeeper Salopek. "Drive down I-95 and you see some guy mowing the grass next to 95. Do we really need manicured lawns next to 95? It should be weeds and flowers for pollinators."

Enter the wannabees. Hobby beekeepers, apiarists say, provide an important link between the insular world of beekeeping and the public. The Toyne family started keeping bees in their tony Coral Gables neighborhood two years ago. At just 10 years old, twins Kai and Nina are already committed apiarists, fearless despite stings and eager to talk about bee virtues.

The twins first discovered a hive in a backyard jasmine bush while their Alhambra Circle house was being renovated. With the help a beekeeping cousin, they persuaded their parents to start keeping hives. But a day after he set up the hives, their dad, Ross Toyne, said he got a citation from Coral Gables code enforcement.

"Fortunately, I'm an attorney. Most people would have just folded up. But I really understood what was going on and was able to articulate a good position," he said, explaining that state issues mandatory best management practices that determine where and how many hives can be kept. State inspectors are supposed to make regular inspections.

For the Toynes, who sell "Coral Gables wildflower honey" along with candles and soap made from beeswax, the hobby provides the kids a little "honey money." But, more important, they see the hives as a way to educate and make a stand on the environment. They also fascinate the kids. When the bees swarm, Kai likes to sit in the yard, planted with mulberry, lychee, lime, mango and other flowering plants, in a shower of bees.

"They just fly around you like a school of fish would," Ross Toyne said. After the county dropped its case, Davis said she was stunned. Toyne had warned her the county's case, which centered on a technical mistake made by a code enforcement hearing officer, was strong.

"We knew we had very good grounds on the technical issue of the hearing examiner exceeding authority," said Craig Coller, an assistant county attorney and chief of the Environmental & Land Use Section. "But we recognized that's a technical argument and we wanted to look at the merits."

Even if it won Davis' case, Coller said the county did not want to fight the state's ability to override local law. But he said the county remains concerned that hives could wind up on condo balconies or neighborhoods denser than Davis' one-acre yard. So while Miami-Dade will follow state law in neighborhoods where it already allows five hives on lots an acre or bigger, it might yet challenge hives in other neighborhoods if residents complain.

"Where the zoning doesn't authorize hives, we're looking at it," he said. "The jury's still out."

Beekeeper associations, who lobbied hard for the law and say it might be the first of its kind in the country, are keeping a close eye on enforcement.

"Most government jurisdictions have been happy to pick it up because they didn't have anyone qualified to make rulings about beekeeping," said Tom Nolan, president of the Florida State Beekeeper's Association.

The law also helped create much-needed buzz. In the years before it passed, there were perhaps a handful of beekeeping clubs in Florida. Now, he said, there are 41.

But Nolan warned underlying environmental problems and issues of disease loom. Last year, the association failed to get the Florida legislature to spend $2.5 million on a bee lab at the University of Florida.

"The big question is how long can this go on," he said. "Name a business that loses 30 percent of its inventory every year and still stays viable."

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