Agri Leader

The plight of the honeybee

Honey is one of my favorite foods. Even Winnie the Pooh couldn’t love it as much as me. Why else would I expose myself to stinging bees for the hope of a taste of their honey? My inherited sweet tooth and my suspicion that processed sugars are silent killers have driven me to consider becoming a beekeeper.

Although I have yet to keep a single bee, I have been heading out with a local beekeeper to collect bees and remove them from local properties. To my surprise I have discovered that bees are, for the most part, docile and less interested in attacking me than I could have imagined. My goal of obtaining these honey-bearing geniuses is beginning to seem more feasible. Beekeepers seem to understand this about bees and if their secret gets out, everyone may put a beehive in their yard and beekeepers might be out of business. As of now, I am happy to learn all I can in preparation for the day that I own my first colony.

There has been much ado in the news about honeybees in the last few years and for good reason. Beekeepers started reporting bees were disappearing and at an alarmingly fast rate. Some people that are not so fond of bees or honey might say good riddance, not understanding how important these small creatures are to the food chain and possibly our very own survival.

While out and about in search of pollen and nectar to sustain the hive, honeybees play a vital role in pollination of many crops that we eat on a daily basis. It is estimated that as much as one-third of our food depends on pollinators. Squash, melons and cucumbers, to name a few, cannot be produced at all without insects to pollinate them and other crops will not produce in very large quantities without help from these pollinators.

Blueberries, apples, almonds and cherries also depend on insect pollination. Bumblebees can be used as replacement pollinators for honeybees, but they offer no other products along with their services. Even livestock may depend on bees because of the need for pollination of many forage crops like alfalfa and clover.

This increasing mystery of disappearing bees was studied by scientists and given the name “Colony Collapse Disorder,” and to date, they have still not been able to pinpoint the exact reason why whole colonies were disappearing within a short time frame – usually during the winter months. A class of pesticides called neonicotinoids has been indicated as the culprit by some studies as well as a honeybee predator called Varroa mite that has become more prevalent within bee populations. Other possibilities are combinations of fungicides, insecticides and miticides that alone are not so toxic but when combined with each other have a different effect.

Whatever the reason, the studies go on while, thanks to the dedication of beekeepers and the persistence of honeybees to reproduce, registered colonies of honeybees are on the rise in Florida. Pesticide labeling is now being altered to take more consideration to bee populations, and farmers, aware of the bees’ plight and understanding their importance, have adopted better management practices to limit exposure to pesticides of bee populations.

In Highlands County, my own extension program is working with the beekeeping community to collect honeybees when possible and give them homes with registered beekeepers. A recent all-day honeybee workshop offered through the University of Florida and UF/IFAS Highlands County Extension was attended by 30 participants interested in the possibilities of keeping bees. The Heartland Beekeepers Association was also formed shortly thereafter and have started meeting at 7 p.m. the second Thursday of every month at the Bert J. Harris Jr. Agricultural Center in Sebring.

The Heartland Beekeepers Association is a combination of seasoned beekeepers and novice or hobbyist beekeepers. Their next meeting is August 10 and you do not need to own bees to become a member.

Julie McClurg, our area honeybee inspector with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, spoke at July’s meeting on bee equipment needed to get started. We are fortunate to have Dr. Hachiro Shimanuki, a renowned bee researcher that is retired from USDA Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, to speak at the August meeting. For more information about joining the Heartland Beekeepers Association, relocating bees on your property or just learning more about bees, you can contact me at or call UF/IFAS Highlands County Extension at (863) 402-6540.

David Austin is the residential Horticulture Agent for UF/IFAS Highlands County Extension and Master Gardener Coordinator.