At Bee Healthy Honey Farms on a sweltering morning, Craig Spence wears a full-body beekeepers’ suit and helmet as he checks the 80 or so hives scattered about in white boxes. He wants to make sure there’s a queen in each and that the bees are healthy.
“If there is no queen, the hive will collapse and leave,” Spence said at the 2.2-acre parcel in a neighborhood west of Delray Beach where bees have access to both wildflowers and vegetable crops at nearby farms.
“My concern is about how I can make it easier for the bees to do what they need to do,” Spence said. “For me, it’s a love and a passion.”
A mysterious phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder first reported in 2006 has brought more attention to the crucial role bees play in agriculture. CCD is minimal now, but it’s had a major — and surprising impact — on the beekeeping business. The notoriety, and more importantly, higher prices for honey and pollination services have resulted in a record number of registered beekeepers in Florida — now at 3,856.
This summer Spence, who works in information technology, is tending to his own bees and those of Bee Healthy’s owner, Stephen Byers. Byers runs both the honey farm and an insurance claims business. Both consider themselves entrepreneurs.
“It started with just a single hive and incredible fascination about bees,” said Byers, who started Bee Healthy four years ago. Last year, the farm produced about 2,000 pounds of raw, unfiltered honey.
Spence and Byers are part of a new breed of beekeepers who have helped increase the number of colonies in Florida to 460,000, up from 150,000 eight years ago, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture.
“It used to be that with most beekeepers, that business was handed down from father to son. Now there’s a lot of entrepreneurs,” said Dave Westervelt, chief apiary inspector at the ag department in Gainesville. “Bees aren’t that hard of a job, even though you are in the heat in 100 degrees. It can be very lucrative, especially if you diversify.”
Honey prices are high and pollination services demand $175 per hive for California almonds, Westervelt said. Eight years ago, beekeepers received just $50 to $60 per hive.
A May report found that beekeepers lost 42.1 percent of the total number of colonies managed from April 2014 through April 2015, much higher than the 34.2 percent the year before, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.
Despite the losses, the number of colonies nationwide increased 4 percent to 2.7 million in 2014, and honey production increased to 178 million pounds, up 19 percent from 2013, the USDA said. The USDA counts only beekeepers with five or more colonies.
Florida’s honey production reached 14.7 million pounds last year, up from 13.4 million pounds in 2013.
That said, beekeeping remains an industry under pressure, with challenges to overcome and tough choices to make.
Florida’s colonies produced an average of 60 pounds each last year, far below what production once was. In 2004, for example, Florida produced 20 million pounds of honey, or an average of 98 pounds per colony.
Westervelt said large commercial beekeepers are combating their losses by splitting their colonies to create more.
“People are losing bees. What they have learned is how to manage and manipulate those bees into producing more bee colonies. A beekeeper pretty well accepts that they are going to lose 25 to 30 percent of bees. The produce 50 percent more by splitting all their hives. So if they lose 30 percent, they still have bees,” Westervelt said.
Jeff Pettis, one of the nation’s top researchers at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service Bee Lab in Beltsville, Md., said Florida’s climate allows beekeepers to divide colonies year-round.
“In Florida you can raise bees through November, December and January in advance of almond pollination. The big thing that is driving the whole commercial honey bee population in the U.S. is almond pollination. We need to put 1.7 million colonies in California for the almonds,” Pettis said.
As for CCD, Pettis said the classic symptoms have not been seen for three years, but bee colonies are still dying.
“It is still not sustainable long-term. It is too hard to lose that many bees, too hard to make it up. Beekeepers are not going broke right now. Prices are elevated. In general, you can’t lose 40 percent or greater of your herd and keep going every year,” Pettis said.
If beekeepers did not have to divide their colonies to stay in business, the bees would make more honey, Pettis said, because dividing them also makes the colonies smaller and weaker.
University of Florida associate professor of entomology Jamie Ellis said that as for CCD, “No one talks about that much any more in the science world. It is one of those things that for all accounts is gone or pretty minimal.”
Even at the height of the CCD pandemonium, Ellis said, it was never the main cause of losses, which were instead due to things such as bad queens, starvation, poor weather and varroa mites.
Ellis said a Bee Informed Partnership survey pegged Florida bee losses at 54 percent last year. Florida’s colonies have increased due to beekeepers from other states coming in to prepare for the almond crop and beekeepers working hard to cover the losses by splitting colonies.
“It is hot year-round. Pest and disease pressures are high,” Ellis said. “It’s a battle here.”
Sideliner beekeepers such as Spence and Byers say they’re focusing on honey production rather than pollination.
“I did some pollination the first couple of years. I have decided to stick with specialty honey for now,” Byers said. “It’s what people are looking for, raw unfiltered, local, natural honey.”
Spence said a fascination with bees draws some to beekeeping and as a bonus, he said, “Who doesn’t like honey?”