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Florida Bucks National Trend in Number of Managed Bee Colonies

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John Davis, WGCU
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So many people are raising bees in Florida, the state is bucking a national trend when it comes to the number of managed bee hives.  While colony collapse disorder, parasites, pesticides and other threats plague bee populations around the world, the state Department of Agriculture says the number of managed bee colonies here has increased 145% in the last eight years.  Florida has emerged as an anomaly in large part because of the growing popularity of backyard beekeeping.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the number of managed bee colonies nationwide has decreased from 5 million in the 1940s to about 2.5 million today.  In Florida, the commercial beekeeping industry maintains the lion’s share of bee hives, but the growing number of back-yard bee-keepers like Cape Coral web designer Jason Pawloski are largely responsible for increases in the number of managed hives.   

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Credit John Davis, WGCU
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Jason Pawloski tending to his hives

Pawloski’s bee hive boxes sit on a vacant lot near to his house that becomes a thriving community garden for them to pollinate in the winter growing season.  Pawloski said for him, beekeeping was a natural fit.

“My wife and I were at the market over here at Cape Coral and she said, “Jay, you do gardening.  You do all kinds of exotic food stuff.’  She goes, ‘What if we got bees?’  I’m like, ‘really?’  She goes, ‘Yeah.  Friends of mine have bees.  They love them!  They sell their honey.’  So the business guy in me goes, ‘Sell your honey.’ You know?  So my wife and I got a set of bees from a gentlemen and we started that way.”

Pawloski works with commercial beekeeper and bee removal specialist Keith Councell who he says took him under his wing.

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Jason Pawloski and Keith Councell inspecting a hive

“He says, ‘Jason, you are a bee haver right now.’  And that’s kind of like the beginning stage of beekeeping.  And then he said, well, I’ve gotten to a certain stage where I’ve been able to work my bees a little better and he says, ‘Now you’re getting into beekeeping.’”

Councell is former president of the Florida State Beekeepers Association and owner of Councell Farms in Cape Coral.  He specializes in live bee removal when a hive moves into the walls of someone’s home or into a hollowed-out tree trunk in their yard or some other place where they could be a nuisance.

“Sometimes we go to people’s properties and they want to keep the bees themselves but have no idea how to do it,” said Councell.  “You can’t just take a box and set it there and tell the bees to move into it.  It doesn’t work that way.  So, I physically move them into the box for them and get them started.”

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A hive takes residence in a hollowed out palm tree trunk

Councell doesn’t know exactly how many backyard beekeepers he’s helped to get started, but says the number is in the hundreds.

Interest in backyard beekeeping also got a boost in 2012, when a state law dissolved local government prohibitions on bee keeping. It put apiary regulation entirely in the hands of state government. Councell said that started in Lee County when officials told a would-be bee-keeping hobbyist that allowing her to keep bees would be a public health threat; a claim Councell says simply wasn’t true.

“So we took it to the state and the University of Florida looked at it and said, ‘Hey, if we have people in backyards keeping bees, we’ll have less Africanized bees out here.’   At that point we had a lot of public media and all talking about the Africanized bees,” said Councell.

“And what they found is that if we have more bees in backyards, of known genetics, that they will starve out these other Africanized swarms and the swarms leaving those boxes will populate the feral hives.  So we actually have seen in the past few years, probably a 90 percent drop in Africanized bees in our samples.”

Councell says another reason for Florida’s increase in beekeeping could be the advantage of the state’s year-round warm weather.

“You produce more honey here.  Our bees never shut down.  We can make more bees and make more honey all year long.”

For Pawloski, it’s not just about selling honey.  He gives all the honey from one of his hives to a neighbor who also uses the honey to ‘pay it forward.’

“I went over and knocked on her door and I said, ‘Listen, I don’t know, this might sound crazy to you.  I know you do church a lot, but I just felt these are your bees.  She goes, ‘That’s amazing!  Our ministry’s called Esther and Esther was, they called the Queen Bee.’  And she goes, ‘Wow! We could use that honey to sell and raise money to give to the prison ministry that we’re doing and all the things that we’re doing for the women here that are in need.”

But on the commercial side of Florida’s $13 million a year honey industry, Councell said the state’s dramatic increase in the number of managed bee colonies, could paint a misleadingly-rosy picture.

“It’s harder for a commercial beekeeper to make a living with this than it was ten years ago.  We have more issues with pesticides, fungicides, different viruses,” said Councell.

“It costs us a lot to keep them alive and keep them going.  Where, in the backyard setting, you have the same issues, but on a smaller scale.”

Councell estimates this past spring, alone, he lost about 600 hives.  The bees he removes from people’s homes and relocates to standard bee boxes help offset those losses, but he worries about the financial practicality of beekeeping in the future.

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“When we’re looking at a 70% loss in our bees every year, it’s not a viable industry at that point.  If we go over that, they start collapsing,” said Councell.  “The price of wholesale honey is not enough to cover the fuel costs and all the other expenses we have in doing it.”

In announcing Florida’s increase in managed bee colonies, the state Department of Agriculture credits voluntary partnerships between beekeepers and growers.  Such programs helped serve as a model for the 2015 Federal Honey Bee and Pollinator Strategy.  Close relationships with growers are essential according to Councell.

“The farmers are our best ally back and forth.  If we don’t have friends in the farming community, I mean, we are farmers.  But if we don’t have friends in the pollination, we don’t know what they’re applying to the fields so we can’t protect our bees.  So, it’s a very tight knit group between the farmers and us.”

When it comes to mitigating colony collapse, Councell says he thinks a lot could be done, but at the end of the day, it comes down to funding.

Florida lawmakers approved a $2.5 million bee-research center in 2015 at the University of Florida in Gainesville aimed at researching cures for threats to bee hives. Governor Rick Scott vetoed that funding for the second year in a row.

Councell says a stable and healthy bee population is essential, not just to the honey industry, but to Florida’s $120 billion agriculture industry. He’s doing his part and continues to train others like Jason Pawloski, who says the surging popularity of backyard beekeepers is no surprise to him.

“Any time the media says, you know, when you start getting into large masses and you start saying, “Look there’s a decline in bees.  They’re dying and dying and dying,’ it pricks people’s hearts and they want to serve and they want to be involved in their community,” said Pawloski.  “They want to do something.  So it’s no surprise to me that they’re like, ‘Hey, I can help!  I can put a couple boxes in there and learn this.’”

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