CHRIS GERBASI | Staff Writer
Honeybees and their keepers are both facing threats.
The bees help make Florida one of the top-five honey producers in the country, with an annual worth of $13 million. But a strange phenomenon of disappearing bees has caused the honeybee population to decline, jeopardizing the livelihoods of commercial honey makers. One honey producer says he is losing thousands of hives a year because of the die-offs that recent studies link to insecticides.
"Bees don't want to make honey anymore," said Bill Rhodes, owner of Bill Rhodes Honey Co. in Umatilla. "I'm trying to keep from going bankrupt."
Beekeeper hobbyists, meanwhile, help fill some of the void created by large losses of bees. Their bees help the environment by pollinating gardens and groves, and the keepers get a little honey from their hobbies.
But some small-scale beekeepers are being told "not in my backyard." Several Florida counties and cities have banned or restricted beekeeping, and the Florida State Beekeepers Association is pushing for new legislation that would leave beekeeping to the expertise of the state.
Senate Bill 1132, sponsored by Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, would establish that the Florida Department of Agriculture has sole power to regulate beehives, and prevent counties and municipalities from enacting beekeeping laws. The bill has passed three committees and last week was placed on the calendar to be heard by the full Senate.
The bill primarily protects non-commercial beekeepers in residential areas, said Gary Ranker, president of the beekeepers association. He said 73 percent of the association's members are small-scale beekeepers who have a handful of hives in residential areas and are not trying to make a living at beekeeping.
But large commercial beekeepers are having trouble making a living because of an environmental threat. Massive beehive die-offs known as colony collapse disorder have been linked to factory farms and pesticides, according to a recent study at Purdue University.
Rhodes says he first noticed a problem with his hives in 2005. He had an opportunity to sell hives to a California company for $150 a hive. Before shipping 6,000 hives, Rhodes' foreman told him that the bees didn't seem to be acting normally. By the time they reached California, the bees were dying.
"We couldn't figure out what it was," Rhodes said. "In 10 days, the hives were down to nothing. Bees were flying off, there were no dead bees around the hives."
Rhodes said 4,000 of the 6,000 hives could not be saved. He built the hives back up the following year, but again mysteriously lost bees. In 2008, he lost 7,200 hives; last year, it was 6,000 hives lost.
Through contacts with friends and entomologists and pest control experts, Rhodes learned about colony collapses and the effects of "neonics," or neonicotinoid insecticides. The insecticides are commonly used to coat corn and soybean seeds before planting, and bees bring corn pollen back to their hives to feed young bees, Rhodes said. He says the chemicals disorient bees so they can't find their hives, and also lower their immune system.
The sticky insecticide coatings are mixed with talc to keep the seeds flowing freely in vacuum planter systems, according to the Purdue study. But excess talc is released during planting. The scientists found levels of neonics in corn pollen that would kill bees if sufficient amounts were consumed, and also found extremely high levels of the insecticides in the excess talc.
"We know that these insecticides are highly toxic to bees; we found them in each sample of dead and dying bees," Christian Krupke, associate professor of entomology, said in a Purdue University News Service report.
"Given the rates of corn planting and talc usage, we are blowing large amounts of contaminated talc into the environment," Krupke added. "The dust is quite light and appears to be quite mobile."
Rhodes specifically blames German chemical giant Bayer for making neonics, noting that products like Bayer Advanced kill insects for 12 months.
Rhodes says there are no safe havens, no unexposed bees, because pesticides are sprayed everywhere, over citrus groves, golf courses, nurseries. The implication is that these insecticides pose a threat to the food supply, and possibly humans. Most fruit, nut and vegetable crops depend on honeybees for pollination, Krupke said.
"It's on every damn thing you eat," Rhodes said.
Rhodes said all he can do to protect his bees is to feed them high-protein pollen several times a year, otherwise, he would lose every one of them. The company's drop in production has cost him nearly $2 million annually in recent years, he said.
In Lake County, there are 16 other beekeepers like Rhodes that have more than 200 hives, said Dave Westervelt, District 7 supervisor with the state's Division of Plant Industry.
"Lake County used to be a large beekeeping county with commercial beekeeping," said Ranker, of the state beekeepers association. "But commercial beekeeping is not as prevalent as it used to be. There's still commercial beekeeping, but (some are afraid) of the threat of bees disappearing."
Backyard beekeeping, on the other hand, is on the rise. Florida has approximately 1,500 small-scale beekeepers, managing five or fewer honey bee colonies, and 500 full-time side-liner commercial beekeepers, according to the association. In Lake, there are 24 beekeepers with 10 or fewer hives, and 15 beekeepers with 11 to 200 hives, Westervelt said.
Ranker said these residential beekeepers can help stem the loss of bees in areas that have experienced colony collapses. That is one reason why the association is fighting local laws. For example, the city of Sarasota and Pinellas County ban backyard beekeeping, while Hillsborough County and several communities impose restrictions, such as lot sizes and distances from neighbors in residential areas.
"The bees are a vital part of the ability of our farmers to feed Americans," Sen. Hays said in an e-mail. "To have some well-intentioned but uninformed or misinformed local officials making restrictive policies that have such a negative impact on the industry is not the best policy for all concerned."
Ranker says local governments erroneously believe that keeping beekeepers out of their neigborhoods will also keep Africanized bees away.
"The municipalities and towns and cities in the state of Florida are basically banning beekeeping throughout without giving it much thought," Ranker said. "Their thoughts are, Africanized bees are in the state of Florida and, therefore, they will ban beekeeping in their neighborhoods and eliminate the threat of Africanized bees.
"Not so," he said. "Because of this, a void is created in that area. European bees are no longer there, and Africanized bees move in to these areas and fill the void."
Ranker said Africanized bees are more defensive, take up residence in a variety of areas, are migratory and fast-moving, and pose a greater threat for people to be severely stung.
"There are no other types of bees for Africanized bees to mate with, so the whole area becomes predominantly Africanized bees, and there is a greater threat for the neighborhood than (from) the more docile European honey bees," he said.
The state Agriculture Department regulates and inspects bee colonies and facilities. Ranker said that if Hays' bill is approved, the department's apiary bureau would step in and resolve any problems involving beekeepers at the local level.
"The state's able to make better decisions than municipalities can, because (municipalities) know very little about beekeeping," Ranker said.
The Florida League of Cities dropped its initial opposition to the bill, but remains concerned about laws that curb the authority of cities. Hays added a requirement that the Agriculture Department consult with local governments on changes to regulations.
Glen Guzman, code enforcement supervisor for Lake County, said the county's only involvement with beekeeping is through zoning laws. Larger commercial beekeepers do business on lands zoned for agriculture, like orange groves, ranches and farms.
Guzman said any nonintensive agricultural uses, such as beekeeping as a hobby or producing honey for personal consumption, are permitted in agriculture, ranchette and ag-residential zonings. Guzman said the county sometimes encounters people living on residential property who are keeping bees for commerical purposes, and they must cease operations.
Rhodes said he has never encountered any problems with local laws. He said he was recently packing bees in Lake Placid city limits in Highlands County, but had no problem because many rural cities have citrus groves within their limits and are zoned for agriculture anyway.
He's not sure about keeping bees in residential areas, however.
"So many people are allergic to bees and bites, it can get a little bit scary," Rhodes said.
But he added: "Bees as a whole are not that aggressive. You have to shake the box and pick 'em off to get 'em to sting. They don't sting for the fun of it."