Keeping bees is a plus for pollinators and the community, but it takes commitment.
Backyard beekeeping is on the rise, as people react to stories of the plight of the honeybee. Ten years ago, when Colony Collapse Disorder struck, Florida had fewer than 1,000 registered beekeepers. Today they number more than 4,000, many of them hobby beekeepers driven by concern for the bees, along with the promise of ultra-local honey. But before setting up a hive, wanna-beekeepers need an education.
“Learn first. Then start. And know that you care for the bees,” says Esther Vickers, a massage therapist and new member of the growing urban beekeeper ranks. She and her husband, avid gardeners, live near downtown Orlando. Their concern for the well-being of the earth and the health of pollinators led them to consider raising bees.
Honeybees are big business in Florida, where a chunk of the state’s income depends on bees pollinating citrus and vegetables. The Department of Agriculture sets the rules and regulations for commercial and individual beekeepers. Anyone can register with the state and set up a hive in their yard, within the zoning requirements set by the state, although an HOA or landlord has the right to refuse.
However, keeping bees is a big commitment—almost like getting married or having a family. The initial investment (hive, bees, bee suits, etc.) is about $500, but then you’re responsible for thousands of bees. Working beekeepers advise newcomers to educate themselves.
Erika Grace Photography
“Make sure your information is reliable,” says lifelong beekeeper Beth Fox, a founder of the Orange Blossom Beekeepers Association (OBBA) in Central Florida. The group welcomes anyone with an interest in keeping bees, and offers workshops, information, and mentorships.
On Mother’s Day five years ago, Vickers’ family gave her a beehive, launching her on a quest for information. “I went to meetings,” she says. “I listened to the science and just felt overwhelmed.” That impasse lasted for several years. But she never lost her love of bees, and about two years ago began to research again.
“First Lessons in Beekeeping was the first book I tackled,” Vickers says. She found Beekeeping for Dummies helpful in its simplicity. Vickers met Fox at an OBBA meeting and was invited to help with a honey extraction. “It’s a hands-on hobby,” Fox says. Reading is fine, but working with the bees is key.
“I decided to dive in,” Vickers says. “I’d gotten over my concerns that I’d kill all the bees.” She and Fox took a day to put the bees into the hive, then she let the colony settle. When she opened the hive about a month later, her family gathered to watch.
“The bees show us different ways of living together. It provides a beautiful meditating time for us,” Vickers says. “It’s calming. It makes you stop and smell the roses [as you] watch the bees go about their lives.”
There are more than 40 local beekeeping associations throughout the state. Several groups operate in Central Florida: ufhoneybee.com; Orange Blossom Beekeepers Association, orangeblossombeekeepers.org; Beekeepers of Volusia County, volusiabeekeepers.org; Lake County Beekeepers Club, lakecountybeekeepers.com
The decision to raise honeybees shouldn’t be taken lightly. If you’re not ready for that level of responsibility, there are less intensive ways to lend a hand such as planting bee-friendly flowers and avoiding pesticide use in the garden.
You can also provide shelter for Florida’s solitary bees: the masons, miners, leafcutters, and diggers. Harmless and not aggressive, these bees don’t live in hives or build social colonies, but instead tunnel into the ground or tree branches, or utilize hollow reeds. Solitary bees come in all sizes—from fat, yellow-and-black bumble bees to tiny iridescent-green sweat bees—and they carry out their pollinating duties alone.
Just as solitary bees come in all sizes, so do their houses. Ready-made ones are available at garden shops or online, but you can build your own—from a small bundle of hollow bamboo canes tied with some garden twine and hung in a tree, to an impressive, 4-story bee house (see photo), made of construction leftovers. Either will make your garden more attractive to solitary bees.
For information on building bee houses, The Bee Book, recently published by Dorling Kindersley, offers wide-ranging information. Also check the University of Florida Native Buzz website: entomology.ifas.ufl.edu/ellis/nativebuzz/about.aspx
The number of registered beekeepers has grown over the past 10 years from 631 in 2006 to 4,093 this year.
To keep bees in Florida you must register with the Department of Agriculture, pay a $10 fee for up to five colonies, and undergo regular inspections. The state issues a Certificate of Beekeeping Registration, which must be renewed annually.
Florida Department of Agriculture and UF IFAS statistics
Books on Beekeeping
- The Backyard Beekeeper, by Kim Flottum
- The Bee Book, published by Dorling Kindersley
- The Beekeeper’s Handbook, by Diana Sammataro and Alphonse Avitabile
- First Lessons in Beekeeping, by Keith S. Delaplane
- Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping, by Dewey M. Caron
- Honey Bees and Beekeeping: A Year in the Life of an Apiary, Keith S. Delaplane