Recent Events in Florida Beekeeping

Bee Culture (June) Vol. 136: 19-21




Malcolm T. Sanford


By some accounts, beekeeping appears to be booming in Florida.  It is difficult to process this information, given recent challenges faced by beekeepers in state.  Beyond low honey prices over the last couple of decades, these included detection of tracheal then Varroa mites in the 1980s, followed by effects of viruses and small hive beetle in the 1990s and after 2000, the appearance of a resident Africanized bee (AHB) population, as well as the rise of CCD.  Nevertheless, the evidence is there.  Four new beekeeping associations have sprung up across the state bursting full of fresh-faced, eager-beaver beekeepers.  A brand new beekeeping extension and research program is in full swing, accompanied by the traditionally strong inspection service enjoyed by Florida beekeepers.  All this means that the face of apiculture is rapidly shifting from a commercial-based one we “old timers” are familiar with, to that dominated by part timers (hobbyists) and sideliners.


Back in April 2004, I wrote about the arrival of Jerry Hayes as Florida’s new chief apiarist in Bee Culture.1  At that time I said, “bee inspection in Florida has been known as one of the best-run and most-supported beekeeping services in the U.S.  There have been relatively few chief inspectors over the years contributing to its stability.  Several have had long tenures, including Mr. Laurence Cutts, who recently retired after a decade and a half of service.  Dr. Roger Morse, well known for his writings in Bee Culture, was Florida’s chief apiarist for a period and authored a document on Florida beekeeping.  Innovations in bee inspection have been the watchword in Florida over the decades.”


This continues to date.  A significant program rolled out by the Bureau of Apiary and Plant Inspection is one based on best management practices (BMPs).  Beekeepers in Florida who voluntarily sign on commit to following BMPs to the best of their abilities and this is monitored by the inspection service.  The key here is to prove “intent,” a watchword important in most litigation.2  


Another Florida initiative is the establishment a Honey Bee Technical Council (HBTS), which meets periodically and provides advice and assistance to Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture with reference to beekeeping affairs.  A recent meeting featured a number of reports about research being conducted around the state, in addition to an in-depth presentation on the BMP program.


A provocative presentation at the latest HBTC meeting by Mr. Richard Gentry, a registered attorney, concluded that signing onto BMPS is the best possible defense against being sued.  In addition it could minimize the consequences of having ones bees in proximity to any stinging incident, and show that one is a responsible beekeeper that does not have “killer bees.”  In response to a question about proving bee ownership, he gave an example that if someone was stung by a bee, and there are bees in a nearby hive, it does not have to be proven what or whose bees are at fault, only that the bees are there and there was an attack, “jurors will fill in the blanks.”

Mr. Gentry concludes in the strongest possible terms that anyone not signing BMPs is a fool and risking the future of their business.  The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services asks nothing extraordinary, he says, but has offered an official action in the BMP program that any ordinary, reasonable person who is a prudent manager should take advantage of.  Signing this agreement would make one defensible and provide grounds for a judge to dismiss a case. Mr. Gentry says that the goal is to be in compliance with the BMP, showing one’s intent of being concerned for public safety.


This appears to have come none to soon.  The first reported human death associated with African bees took place in Okeechobee, Florida this month (April 2008).  However, the circumstances, “A man in Florida died after being stung more than 100 times by bees that officials think were Africanized honey bees, 3 does not seem to reflect a typical attack by AHB.  A posting on the Bee-L network March 19, 2008 by "Peter L. Borst" peterlborst@GMAIL.COM reveals that Martin County could be the first Florida entity banning beekeeping due to Africanized bees.  Again, the published reasoning doesn’t correlate much with what most of us know about honey bee biology and management: “There have been 22 complaints about the highly aggressive bees in two years in Martin County.  The number is expected to rise because bee colonies split eight to 16 times a year, said Gene Lemire, the county's mosquito control administrator.”  This unfortunately reflects the kind of misinformation that is the target of increased extension and regulatory efforts as noted elsewhere in this article.


Meanwhile, in California a video describes the Africanized bee in a much more positive light than previously, asking “What ever happened to those killer bees?”4.  It reflects on several events with reference to the “invasion,” and provides reasons why it didn’t affect the human population as much as was projected.  One was the significant resources going into educating the public before and during the arrival of the insects that beekeepers following BMPs are the first line of defense against feral AHB.


The hiring of Dr. Jamie Ellis as Florida’s Extension Apiculturist by the University of Florida (IFAS) has also added much to the resources available to the state’s beekeepers.  This continues a long tradition.  The first beekeeping education specialist in the Florida Cooperative Extension Service was John D. Haynie.  "Honey Haynie" began a newsletter called Hum of the Hive in the 1950s.  It was regularly published until his retirement in 1971.  Mr. Haynie also began the Florida Beekeepers Institute in 1957.  Hum of the Hive was taken up by Dr. Danny R. Minnick in September 1971.  His "last issue" was written in August of 1972.  At that time, 1,800 hundred persons subscribed.  Thereafter, Dr. Freddie Johnson sporadically authored the newsletter along with Frank Robinson, until July 1981.  The following month's issue was written by the author of this article, who edited the document that became the Apis newsletter,5 and retired as "Professor Emeritus," in 2001. 


Dr. Ellis and Chief Apiarist Hayes have embarked on an ambitious program to inform the public about bees and beekeeping.  One of the hallmarks of this program is a full-fledged program to educate the public about African bees.6  Another is both agencies cooperating to produce a quarterly pamphlet, Florida Melitto Files: News for Bee Lovers, which goes to all registered beekeepers in the state.  Beekeepers are required to be registered by state law.


Recently, Dr. Ellis put on the first edition of Florida’s Bee College at the IFAS Research and Extension Center in Apopka, Florida.  This author was proud to be among the first faculty featured at this event.


This is Dr. Ellis’ rendition of a yearly seminar/short course, traditionally known as the Beekeepers Institute, which was held in Florida continuously from 1957 until 1993, and became the inspiration for similar events around the nation.7  The 2008 Bee College was featured on a segment on Good Morning America.8  Attendance was 166 and 60 brand new Apprentice Beekeepers were graduated as part of a newly-developed Master Beekeeper Program.  Here at the criteria met by the first cadre of apprentice graduates at the Bee College:


A: must be a Florida registered beekeeper or a registered beekeeper in home state


“B: must own at least 1 colony of honey bees for at least 1 year.  Special exceptions to this rule will be considered.


“C: no age limit (although the examination may be too difficult for children under 12 years of age)


“D: must score a 70% or higher on a written examination (must attend the annual UF Bee College to take the written examination).


“E: must score 70% or higher on a practical examination (must attend the annual UF Bee College to take the practical examination).  


Comments about the Bee College from those present were by and large complimentary and again reflect Florida’s growing community of smaller-scaled beekeepers.  The event provoked 19 of 20 non-beekeepers present to indicate they will begin active beekeeping soon.  All participants said they planned to attend future events.  The addition of Welsh-trained honey judge, Robert Brewer, who lives in nearby Georgia, and the associated honey show with 48 entries added greatly to the festivities.  Twenty eight people took honey judging training and this means a number of qualified judges will now be available in the state.

Another part of Florida’s beekeeping renaissance is the continued evolution of the Florida State Beekeepers Association.  This outfit has a long and impressive history as related by Mr. Laurence Cutts, Florida Chief Apiarist Emeritus on the Association’s web site:   The Florida State Beekeepers Association was organized at Gainesville on October 6, 1920.  It was anticipated that it would make for rapid improvement in the beekeeping industry of Florida ( Newell, 1921).  A report of the organizational meeting states that a group of 100 enthusiastic beekeepers from all over the state were in attendance.  The first officers were: J. W. Barney of Bradenton, President; F. K. Isbell of Wewahitchka, Vice President; K. E. Bragdon of Cocoa, Secretary; and J. R. Hunter of Wewahitchka, Treasurer.  It is also stated that the establishment of the state association followed the organization of several strong local associations.  On the same page is a classified ad for 2 or 3 frame nuclei from the Sarasota Bee Company, the beginning of a segment of the beekeeping industry that became a major part of the industry here in later years (Anonymous, 1921).

“On July 1, 1957, an Act of the Florida State Legislature became effective which provided to beekeepers compensation for bees and equipment destroyed by the state because of American foulbrood (Martin, 1960).  Florida was the first state to implement such a program.  The compensation program increased cooperation between the Department of Agriculture and the beekeeping industry and contributed to a steady decline in the incidence of American foulbrood in the state.

“Between 1920 and 1940 tupelo honey shifted from a honey for blending to a specialty honey recognized as one of the premier honeys of the United States.  Since then beekeepers have exercised care to produce and market as pure a product as possible.  In 1962, the Florida Department of Agriculture initiated a program to certify tupelo honey as a marketing tool for those who produce a quality product (Packard, 1962).   This continues to be the only program of this nature in the United States.”9  

The Florida State Beekeepers Association has recently been enriched through the addition of new local groups as noted above, which have been the heart and soul of the Association itself.  It has also been involved in initiatives that have injected new funding into Florida honey bee programs.  Over the last two years, around $700,000 has been appropriated by the Florida legislature for bee research and extension efforts due principally to association lobbying efforts.  It sponsors a yearly meeting and in the last few years has held a mid-year event as well.  The Association sports eighty life members, whose dues are paid by the Association’s apiary named after Florida beekeeping icon, Conrad Cramer, and run on shares by volunteer managers.  Finally, it publishes The Florida Beekeeper each quarter, a 48-page booklet crammed with news and advertising.  Another Association initiative, which is expected to go nation wide, is developing a standard of identity for honey, based in part on that found in the International Codex.10  .  Stay tuned for more on this exciting program in the future.

A final organization affecting beekeeping in Florida is the Apiary Advisory Committee of the Florida Farm Bureau (FFB).  Beekeeping (apiculture) is one of many activities (commodities) championed by the FFB, and the committee is made up mainly of commercial beekeepers.  It engages in setting policies11 that the National Farm Bureau pursues during the year, and assists the industry in its lobbying efforts in Tallahassee.

All the above organizations and activities are providing a special synergy to Florida beekeeping that is sure to serve it well in the future.  And as in the past, the rest of the nation can continue to look for inspiration from the many and varied activities of beekeepers in the Sunshine State.

References:  All URLs accessed April 20, 2008.