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Teen knows his beeswax about bees

He has immersed himself in the world of honeybees, keeping about 200,000.

Published February 4, 2007


Nathan Gulbis picks up a small metal can from the patio and gently waves it from side to side, releasing a thin trail of smoke.

It's a bee smoker, used to calm his honeybees.

He doesn't know who discovered that smoke could calm bees, but that's one of the few bee things he doesn't know.

At 15, Gulbis is Pinellas County's youngest registered beekeeper. The sophomore in the Business Economics Technology Academy at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg has been keeping bees for about two years.

"I was looking at bumblebees on azalea flowers, and I thought they were honeybees at first, so I just looked up bees (online)," he said.

That piqued an interest that has yet to wane.

Gulbis is the youngest current member of the Tampa Bay Beekeepers Association, which meets monthly to share tips and resources on beekeeping.

He designed the association's Web page and keeps a beekeeping blog.

Ask him a question about bees and Gulbis doesn't hesitate to go into specifics about the biology, habits and social structure of honeybees with the same enthusiasm many teens reserve for their favorite singer or television show.

* * *

All beekeepers are required to register with the state. In Pinellas County, there are 20 hobbyist beekeepers, said Todd Jameson, one of 13 bee inspectors for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The department inspects every colony at least once a year. They also inspect commercial colonies brought in to pollinate orange crops.

Inspectors watch for signs of American foul brood, a rare but incurable bacterial bee disease that requires destruction of the hive to eliminate spreading.

They also monitor hives for Africanized honeybee infestation, Jameson said.

Africanized bees were first reported in the United States in Hidalgo, Texas, in 1990. In Florida, the bees were first reported at Port of Tampa several years ago, Jameson said.

Since then, the bees, which are a hybrid of European and African honeybees, have been found in about 20 counties across the state, with the largest concentrations in the Tampa Bay area.

"The last couple of years, we really saw their numbers increase," Jameson said.

Despite the public fear surrounding Africanized bees, they are no more venomous than European bees, Jameson said.

"They're venom is actually a little less toxic ... but they will defend their colony very aggressively," Jameson said.

* * *

Gulbis installed his first hive in June 2005. Now he has four. That's about 200,000 bees in his back yard.

His parents have been very receptive of his hobby. So have his neighbors, which is not always the case.

"When I initially started, I was a little bit paranoid about being stung. But then I realized, 'You're not going to die from it,' " he said.

He's been stung about a half dozen times, the worst incident involving 11 stings to his left ankle. "As far as I know, there's not been a single human death in Florida from a bee sting," he said.

Gulbis uses industry standard hives made up of boxes without tops or bottoms that are stacked on top of each other. Inside, frames hold the beeswax honeycomb.

"I harvested three times last year and got around 81/2 gallons," Gulbis said. The honey goes into home canning jars for friends and family.

James Alderman, president of the Tampa Bay Beekeepers Association, said beekeeping is a good way to teach children and teens responsibility.

"They also learn discipline in a way because bees have to be looked at every so often or they die," he said. "It's not something you can just leave in the back yard."

Gulbis checks his hives about once a week and doesn't expect his fascination to end any time soon.

Just what is so great about it?

"It's just observing the social structure," he said.

"Insects build these communal colonies that form almost cities and all this with a brain that weighs around a milligram."

Fast Facts:


Africanized honeybees

-You cannot tell an Africanized honeybee from a European by sight.

-An African bee's sting is not more venomous. But because Africanized bees are more aggressive, you're more likely to get stung by one, and more than once.

-If you disturb an Africanized bee colony, run away and get inside a closed structure.

-If you get stung, do not pull the stinger out because that can release more venom. Gently scrape it out with a blunt object.

Source: Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

[Last modified February 3, 2007, 20:23:39]

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