Panhandle bees surviving

Gulf County's agriculture agent thinks pesticides are responsible for killing a quarter of the nation's bees.

Published May 22, 2007

WEWAHITCHKA - Bees in this Florida Panhandle community renowned for its tupelo honey have so far escaped a mysterious killer that has wiped out a quarter of the nation's bee colonies.

Honeybees in the Apalachicola River swamps around Wewahitchka have been busy making the premium, floral-flavored honey since early May, hindered only by a persistent drought, beekeepers said.

Beekeepers in 27 states, however, have reported in the past few months that their bees have suddenly vanished, and similar disappearances have been reported in Brazil, Canada and parts of Europe.

Scientists have dubbed it colony collapse disorder, though they haven't been able to determine what's causing it.

One study released earlier this month pointed to some kind of disease or parasite, but Roy Lee Carter, Gulf County's agriculture agent, speculates that pesticides may be to blame.

Gulf County has few fields where crops are grown and sprayed with pesticides, so bees here may be somewhat protected, Carter said.

County officials say a bee dieoff here could fracture an economy dependent on tupelo honey, a prison and fishing.

Made famous by the 1997 film Ulee's Gold and celebrated at the annual Tupelo Honey Festival in Wewahitchka, tupelo honey sweetens the state economy by about $2.4-million a year. Northwest Florida, along the Chipola and Apalachicola rivers, is the only place where the honey is produced commercially.

Ben Lanier, who continues the honeymaking business his grandfather started in 1898, also believes chemical spraying may be behind the bee dieoffs elsewhere, because county mosquito spraying two years ago, he said, killed many of the bees he raises.