Traveling 2,700 miles from Florida to California is a long haul with a
truckload of bees. But Mario Jakob finds it hard to pass up the country's most
lucrative gig for beekeepers.
Billions of bees are needed to pollinate California's $3.9 billion almond crop, and Jakob's business, D&J Apiary in Umatilla, earns a big payoff trucking its hives each February to the San Joaquin Valley.
Demand for the traveling hives has been high because commercial beekeepers across the country have lost bees to the mysterious colony-collapse disorder, which has claimed about 10 million hives nationwide since 2006.
It's a tough choice for Jakob and other beekeepers in Florida, where colony loss has been below the national average. There's plenty of demand for bees to pollinate the nation's top cash crops, but each trip risks exposing the bees to whatever might be killing the hives.
And in Florida, worries about colony-collapse disorder have had another effect: There has been a resurgence in beekeeping, with newcomers wanting to do their part to ensure the future of honeybees.
Hundreds of people have taken up beekeeping, registering with the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services as hobbyists or "niche pollinators." During the past five years, the number of registered beekeepers has jumped from 900 to 3,143, said David Westervelt, assistant chief of apiary inspection for the department.
"I've been in the honey business all my life, and I've never had a time before when I had people come ask me, 'How can we help the bees?'" said Doug McGinnis, vice president of Tropical Blossom Honey Co. in Edgewater. "It's an amazing time for bees and honey and beekeeping in the public consciousness."
The buzz about beekeeping is occurring as experts debate the cause of colony-collapse disorder, the unexplained calamity in which adult bees abandon a hive, suddenly leaving behind the queen, the unhatched eggs and the nectar and pollen in the honeycomb. Without adult bees to do the work of pollination, colony-collapse disorder poses a huge threat to a third of the nation's food supply: all the fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts that need pollination.
Billions of dollars' worth of food each year depend on honeybees, a fact many people don't know or appreciate, Jakob said as he checked on hives last week in Umatilla.
Wearing a hat with netting, Jakob approached one of his hives in large wooden boxes, pumping smoke around it to calm the bees. He pulled out a tray with scores of bees at work around the honeycomb, filled with tiny eggs, or pollen. His finger poked a wax-covered section brimming with dark honey and worker bees that converged to rebuild the covering. The bees worked around his fingers without stinging him.
Jakob used to haul hives year-round, following the pollination seasons -- from Florida citrus to the California almond season to clover fields in the Dakotas, blueberry farms in Maine and cranberry bogs in New Jersey. His hives made the journeys on pallets stacked on the flatbed of a big rig. That was until his own experience with a colony collapse.
"Three years ago, we sent my bees out West, and about half of them came back dead," he said.
Florida beekeepers have had their share of colony-collapse disorder, though several Midwest states have reported higher percentage losses. During the 2011-12 season, Florida had an average loss of 22.5 percent, below the national average of 25 percent, according to a survey published by the International Bee Research Association.
Many commercial beekeepers blame the growing prevalence of agricultural pesticides called neonicotinoids. Others point to exposure to bacterial and viral diseases or to genetically modified corn or soybeans. The stress and rigors of commercial pollination, in which bees are transported cross-country for the top cash crops, also are seen as factors.
After his own experience with the disorder, Jakob dropped part of the pollination business. Some of his fellow commercial beekeepers maintain the yearlong treks and continue to lose their hives to die-offs.
He doesn't pass up the trip to California for almond season, though.
"Almost every commercial beekeeper in the United States migrates to California to meet that demand because they are the highest-paying crop," said Jakob, a third-generation beekeeper who set up his business in 1983. Almond growers pay nearly three times more for each hive than farmers of other crops.
He has dropped other trips, though, able to find business through his own classes and supplies for new beekeepers, as well as through sales of honey.
"We've shifted our operation because there's a big demand," he said. "People want to have bees in their backyard for their own honey supply or their own gardening.
"In the long run, I think that'll mean more bees in Florida," he said.
Interest in beekeeping was high during a National Honey Bee Appreciation event this month in Orlando hosted by the Orange Blossom Beekeeping Association. Dozens of bee lovers turned out, stocking up on locally produced raw honey and seeking tips for setting up a backyard hive.
J.R. Denman took up beekeeping for his garden in Osceola County when he needed more pollinators for his cucumbers, peaches, apples and pears. He now has eight hives and a regular flow of raw honey and beeswax.
And he has taught about 200 people about becoming a backyard beekeeper through classes at the Osceola County extension service.
"People want to save the bees, but they also want to eat healthier and have their own homegrown gardens," said Denman, president of the Kissimmee Valley Beekeeping Association.
Many people are drawn to beekeeping for the health benefits of raw honey, said Beth Fox, past president of the Florida State Beekeepers Association. Raw honey has been cited as beneficial for allergy sufferers and for those trying to cut down on refined sugars.
"It's just like the trend with backyard chickens and front-yard gardens," Fox said. "I think people are getting back to nature and a healthier lifestyle."
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