Honeycomb hideout! 

DIY beehives make Orlando backyards sweeter

click to enlarge RALPH GIUNTA
  • Ralph Giunta

If there's anything we can learn from bees, it's that the collapse of the middle class is devastating to an economy.

Just as the U.S. economy has suffered as its middle class has shrunk during the recession, the economy of bees has struggled as the apian version of the middle class – worker bees – has been decimated by outside forces.

In 2006, a mysterious disease called colony-collapse disorder struck beehives around the world, causing worker bees, which collect pollen to feed the hive and help it grow (and pollinate plants in the process), to die off in record numbers.

That same year, Joe Willingham – a middle-class victim of the human economic recession – found himself at the confluence of these human and insect declines. He had been laid off from his job working security at Universal Studios, and he was relying on freelance web-design projects to get by. Most of his days were spent indoors, attached to his laptop, so he liked to take frequent breaks to step outside into his yard, where the wildflowers buzzed with honeybees. He says he found himself watching the bees closely, and their habits intrigued him, so he started reading up on them. He thought about keeping them and wondered whether he could somehow catch a few of them and set up a hive of his own.

Willingham learned that catching bees wasn't a practical plan – most beekeepers purchase the insects from suppliers – and after a visit to a commercial bee apiary, he ordered his first package of bees. He established his hive, and it wasn't long before he found himself eager to start more.

Although colony-collapse disorder was ravaging hives up and down the East Coast, he immersed himself in the art of beekeeping.

"I started really in the thick of the difficulties," says the 37-year-old Willingham, who now owns Dansk Farms apiary, which currently runs 30 beehives in Central Florida. "Some people say that I'm the type of person that just likes a challenge. I didn't plan it like that, though. That's just the way it worked out. I developed this interest in bees right when things became bad."

Despite the challenges (facing both humans and bees trying to make a go of it), Willingham found a niche: He discovered that there weren't many local honey producers serving the Orlando area, and that the bees could use a little help to sustain healthy populations. Willingham's hobby quickly turned into a full-time job.

These days, he's known at local farmers markets as "the honey guy," and it would probably surprise those who buy his honeys – raw and unfiltered, sold in glass jars – to know that this career started out as a fluke.

He now manages between 20 to 50 hives at any given time located in Cocoa, Winter Park and Winter Garden, each of which houses between 40,000 and 50,000 bees. They generate thousands of pounds of honey each year, which he sells at the Winter Park and Audubon Park farmers markets and Eat More Produce in Winter Park. Local restaurants, including The Ravenous Pig, Highland Manor and Infusion Tea, use his honeys to sweeten their dishes.

Willingham, who lives in Winter Park, is one of a growing number of urban apiarists – people who have taken to beekeeping in densely populated areas and turned it into a hobby. Or, as in Willingham's case, a viable business. Like backyard poultry keeping, backyard beekeeping has grown in popularity with the public's interest in locally sourced, natural foods, and some cities are making it easier for residents to get in on the trend. Though it's not legal to keep bees in Los Angeles, at the moment, it is in New York City: In 2010 New York made it legal to keep non-aggressive honeybees on rooftops and in community gardens to pollinate plants and earn income by selling honey. Even the White House has a beehive, introduced by First Lady Michelle Obama last year.

While approximately 80 percent of the bees in the United States are kept bees, it's not clear exactly how many urban beekeepers are setting up hives in their backyards. Willingham says the public's interest in bees can help keep bee populations healthy and thriving. Each new hive, he says, promotes a more sustainable future for the fragile honeybee, because they help promote diversity among the species. Willingham, for instance, imports his bees and mixes his hives in an attempt to make them stronger and more capable of fighting off diseases that could cause such things as colony-collapse disorder.

"Einstein said if the bees were to die, man would have four years to live," Willingham says. "Visualizing the foods that come from bees – people say one out of every three bites – it gives you a real visual idea of how we depend on them. But it's really 33 percent; a third of our food supply, comes from sources that are dependent on bee pollination."

Just as bees are more than just another insect – they do, after all, provide the vital service of pollinating crops used for food – honey is more than just another sweetener. It's also a source of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and as a result, it's commonly used in home remedies for treating allergies, soothing coughs and softening the skin. The flavor of honey is influenced by the nectar sources bees have to choose from (some of Willingham's local favorites include orange blossom, palmetter, gallberry and wildflower), but honey's nutritional value, Willingham says, is influenced by how it's handled and processed. Commercial honey farms that deal with vast quantities of honey heat their product so they can quickly filter it and remove impurities. But Willingham says the best honeys (and those with the most nutritional benefits) are the simplest: raw and sold as fresh as possible.

"Raw honey is just extracted and not heated or filtered," he says. "The heating process affects the flavor a lot. When we do the honey, we just basically let it settle in a tank, and all of the wax floats to the top, and any sediment will usually go right to the bottom, so we're able to draw out the honey without ever filtering it or heating it, and that gives it a better flavor."

Florida is the only state that requires honey to be 100 percent honey. In other states, producers are allowed to cut their product with water or, worse, corn syrup. In Florida, these mixes must be labeled differently than pure honey – honey syrup, for instance.

Florida is one of the top five honey-producing states in the United States; the honey industry here generates 17 million pounds of the sweet amber liquid each year and earns $13 million annually – and that doesn't include the income earned by small, private beekeeping operations in urban areas, like Willingham's.

Orange County permits people to keep bees within three agricultural zones; in one of those zones, they must be kept at least 100 feet from any property line. Orange County regulations for small urban apiary ventures require keepers to register their hives with the Florida Department of Agriculture and have them inspected annually. Willingham says that inspectors come out to look for contagious diseases that can spread quickly among bees, as well as other threats to bee welfare. For example, Africanized bees, which are more aggressive than typical honeybees, are seen as a threat and may not be kept in Florida.

Willingham says that before he started Dansk Farms, which sells beekeeping supplies as well as honey and other bee products, there weren't many sources for local honey in the Orlando area, so he focused on that. Now he's hoping to grow his business by adding more hives.

"My next goal is to really build up the number of hives that I have so we can continue to expand where we want to," he says. "Really now at this point, I'm a local honey supplier, but I also kind of have to be a honey supplier, because there's enough local demand."

In 2010, an estimated 34 percent of the nation's bees were lost to colony-collapse disorder. Scientists are still unsure what causes the phenomenon – theories point to everything from disease to stress to pesticides – but a somewhat recent theory from last year purports that it's actually a unique combination of a fungus (nosema ceranae) and a virus (insect iridescence virus) that causes worker bees to go crazy and abandon the hive suddenly to die alone.

Willingham has lost his fair share of bees, he says, though he says the Florida weather has actually posed the biggest threat to bees. Hives must be sealed up during the coldest months of the year, and bees go into a dormancy period until spring; the spring cold snaps that have become more common in Florida mean that if keepers unseal their hives too early, the bees wake up, begin reproducing and sometimes die of exposure.

"Last year, when we had that really late cold snap, the bees had already started building up to where they couldn't all fit back into the hive," Willingham says. "So when it got really cold, the ones that were on the front of the hive had just frozen. You'd come out, and they were just all laying on the ground."

For the honey guy, this was more than just a loss of workers to supply his customers with their golden goods; it was an unfortunate waste of effort for both him and the bees.

But it was also a lesson that all new beekeepers need to learn. The typical annual yield for one well-managed hive can be between 70 and 100 pounds of honey. But to get those kinds of results, Willingham says, you've got to practice the art of patience.

"You can't be in a hurry, " he says. "You can't rush the bees. Because of that, I think when you go out to the yard, you just tend to relax yourself. You don't really keep track of time. Really, you just lose track of time when you're with the bees."

Urban beekeeping start-up guide

Essentials

• A medium-sized beehive (available in beekeeping supply stores)

• A smoker (smoke calms bees, so a keeper can work without alarming them)

• A veil (to protect your face, which is the most vulnerable part of you should the bees attack)

• Frame feeder (to keep the bees fed and healthy during the dormant period in the winter)

• 10,000-20,000 bees (Italian breeds recommended; they are shipped live)

• Water supply (a small fountain or birdbath will do)

Costs

• Initial investment of $250 in equipment (including a 31-pound package of bees, approximately $85).

• Most of your time investment comes in building your hive. When the hive is built or bought, you install the bees by first setting the queen behind a feeder, so that the rest of the bees must eat through the feeder to get to her. This ensures that the bees accept the queen because they become used to her smell.

• Once you start your hive, it's best not to check up on it too much, because it disturbs the bees. Check in on your bees once every two to three weeks to check for pests and disease.

Tips

• You don't need a lot of space to start a hive, but you should have a fenced-in yard to keep curious neighbors away. Face the hive toward a tall fence or bush, so that the bees fly high when leaving the hive and avoid human contact.

• Bees forage up to three miles from the hive, so you don't need to keep a garden as a nectar source.

Do not feed your bees when they are producing honey; only feed bees during the dormant seasons.

• Keep a shallow water supply nearby the hive.

• Keeping a small fountain or birdbath can ensure that your bees don't choose a neighbor's pool as their preferred watering hole.

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