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Sweet success

Beekeepers, whether commercial keepers or hobbyists, are an integral part of Florida agriculture.

By JACKIE RIPLEY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 15, 2002


photo
[Times photos: Fraser Hale]
Beekeeper Marion Lambert inspects one of his hives on his south Tampa farm. Lambert tends to his bees during the hottest part of the day. "When it's most uncomfortable out it's the best time to work," he says.
UPPER TAMPA BAY -- Clifford Bibb makes a monthly pilgrimage to his bee hives.

It's his quality time. "I don't mess with them when it's cloudy, cool and breezy," said Bibb, who lives in Odessa and keeps his hives on an isolated acre of land near Upper Tampa Bay Park.

"But on a nice sunny day I can work with them all day long."

Bibb worked for a commercial beekeeper in California before moving to the Tampa Bay area several years ago. Now a mechanic for the city of Largo, Bibb said he got back to beekeeping after a chance meeting at the Florida State Fair with members of the Tampa Bay Beekeepers Association.

He is a typical hobbyist beekeeper, someone who keeps about 20 hives for a little side income, but mostly for the love of the craft. "It's a lot of work, so to pick it for a hobby you'd have to really like it," said Bibb.

But while not all beekeepers are raking in a fortune, collectively they are a large industry and an integral part of Florida agriculture. Scientists estimate that one-third of the food we eat has been pollinated by bees. And farmers say that certain crops yield as much as 62 percent more if they are effectively pollinated.

"People don't realize the benefits of bees," said Jim Alderman Jr., an inspector for the Florida Department of Agriculture.

All in a day's work

To be a beekeeper, it doesn't hurt to be a bit of a philosopher.

"I do it because it makes sense to me," says Marion Lambert, who has been in the beekeeping business for so long that he takes the bee stings as part of an honest day's work.

"Sure it's a profitable business," acknowledges Lambert in the kind of gentleman farmer drawl that comes from growing up in Alabama. But "most people don't want to get stung."

Getting stung several times a day is just part of being a beekeeper. So is tending to your bees during the hottest part of the day.

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Bees crawl over a panel in one of beekeeper Marion Lambert's hives. Lambert sells his lower grade honey to a processing plant for use in bakeries and his quality honey from a stand in front of his house.
"When it's most uncomfortable out it's the best time to work because the worker bees are gone," says Lambert, taking the cover off one of his "supers," a man-made beehive that looks a lot less like a hive you'd find in a Winnie the Pooh story than chests of drawers stacked next to each other.

The 54-year-old Lambert keeps his bees at the rear of his five-acre homestead in south Tampa. He lives there with his daughter, a couple of dogs, a handful of cows, a potbellied pig and thousands of bees.

Lambert sells his lower grade honey to a processing plant for use in bakeries, and his quality honey from a stand in front of his house.

He figures beekeeping is a pretty smart move because it doesn't require that you own the land you're farming on.

"Bees work other peoples' ground," Lambert said. "They'll cross a fence; they're no respecter of property lines."

Lambert said a bee's radius is 3 to 5 miles, and from his location in south Tampa, they travel as far as Kennedy Boulevard.

"Bees are a lot like people," he says as he manipulates one of his hives.

Thinking man's vocation

Lambert likes to talk about bees, about how the male drones don't work, but hang around all day and how bees don't like cold weather and won't work at all if the mercury drops below 50 degrees. And about how the queen bee rules the roost.

"The mama," says Lambert, pulling out a wood frame where hundreds of bees cling. He points to a bee about twice the size of the others. "That's what it's all about."

It's true that the queen bee makes her world go 'round. But there's a lot more to this bee business than the queen. For instance, bees are responsible for increasing crop yields by roughly 20 to 62 percent.

Alderman, who travels the state inspecting bee colonies known as apiaries, can name hundreds of plants that need bee pollination. Cantaloupes, watermelons, pumpkins, raspberries and strawberries depend on bees, as do seed crops such as onions, collards and cabbage. Cucumbers, if not visited a number of times by bees, will grow misshapen and tough, Alderman says.

In fact, farmers in some areas pay beekeepers to put hives in their fields and orchards, or at the very least let them stay at no charge.

"They get free pollination," Alderman said. "They're making an exchange."

A commercial beekeeper usually has at least 200 hives; sideliners, about 40, and hobbyists a handful.

"Beekeeping is a multimillion dollar industry if you count the value of the crops being pollinated by the bees," Alderman said. "By keeping bees around and pollinating, the state of Florida stays in agriculture."

Beekeeping for fun and profit

But it's not for everyone. The hives weigh about 90 pounds and have to be lifted on and off a truck if they're being transported to a honey house, an enclosed space where the honey is extracted, for processing.

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Clifford Bibb, shrouded for safety, checks on one of his hives in woods near Upper Tampa Bay Park. Bibb, who once worked for a commercial beekeeper, is now a hobbyist beekeeper, who keeps about 20 hives for a little side income.
"You unload them again, do the extracting," Bibb said. "It's pretty hard physically."

Although Bibb keeps his bees at a remote location, he keeps his honey house in the backyard of his home in Odessa.

Bees make honey by taking the nectar, which is a sweet sticky substance exuded by most flowers, and mixing it with enzymes from glands in their mouths. They store the mixture in the honeycomb until the water content has been greatly reduced. When the level is low enough, they cap the cell with a thin layer of wax to seal it. This lets the beekeeper know the honey can be harvested.

The beekeeper lifts off the super boxes containing the honey comb and extracts the honey by using centrifugal force in a machine called a spinner.

"You take the box apart and find the queen," Bibb said. "You can see her running around in there, going from cell to cell laying eggs."

And if you take the time to watch you'll see that each group of bees has a different duty.

"The guard bees guard the entrance to the hive," Bibb said. "They make sure the other bees have the right smell."

As the bees age, they progress from one duty to the next, starting with housekeeping chores to feeding the queen.

"We've been keeping bees for thousands of years, crossbreeding and artificial insemination so that we've worked out a nice combination between gentle bees and bees that bring in quite a bit of honey," Bibb said.

"They're as domesticated as much as an insect could be."

- Jackie Ripley can be reached at (813) 269-5308 or ripley@sptimes.com.

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