When the cows are nearby, idly grazing by the colonies, John Peterson knows it’s a good day for the bees. They aren’t agitated, which means he might be able to escape with only a few stings when he goes to collect honey.
But even if his 574 hives are doing well that particular day, he can’t help but shake off an unwelcome feeling.
For the past three years, the 23-year-old beekeeper and owner of World Honey Market, said he has noticed a substantial decrease in nectar flow in Baker County. And with a sudden influx of beekeepers to the area, he said there just isn’t enough resources to go around.
Tom Nolan, president of the Florida State Beekeepers Association, said there were about 1,200 beekeepers in Florida 10 years ago. Now, there are about 3,800.
Although Florida’s bee population is growing, according to experts, Peterson said local beekeepers still face real problems in the industry.
Overcrowding and Herbicides
Situated on Florida’s northernmost border, Baker County’s countryside is packed with pinewoods. Underneath these towering timbers is the underbrush, where the gallberry plant grows.
It is one of Peterson’s main crops. And although it’s one of the few remaining viable sources of nectar in the area, he said, it’s struggling to thrive.
One factor has been the weather.
“Gallberry needs a really warm spring in order to produce a lot of nectar,” he said. “And this year it was just on and off.”
But the greatest effects on the plant are from humans, he said.
Rayonier, headquartered in Jacksonville, is the seventh largest private timberland owner in the U.S., according to its website. It manages 416,480 acres of land in north central Florida, 14,503 of which are in Baker County.
Peterson said having underbrush near its trees has become a liability for the company because it can quickly become tinder for fires. So they have started to use herbicides to clear the land – land where the gallberry grows.
The company only uses herbicides on a small percentage of land, according to Mike Branch, director of operations and regulatory affairs for the Florida Forestry Association. Mostly because it is too dangerous to control burn where people live.
Even so, it has had a negative impact on the production of nectar, Peterson said. And Baker County isn’t the only area that has been affected.
“There are a lot of beekeepers coming down from Homerville and Fargo, Georgia, that are seeking out places to put bees because it’s already happening in their areas,” he said.
Peterson said Rayonier has gotten rid of a lot of available territory for beekeepers in Georgia, which has pushed them into Baker County.
With so many bees in one area, there isn’t enough food to sustain them, according to Peterson.
“They can’t remain healthy,” he said. “And they can’t produce any honey.”
Loss of Land
Ray Latner, a third-generation commercial beekeeper and branch manager of Dadant and Sons in High Springs, also struggles to keep his colonies alive and well. He has about 1,000 hives.
When he was his daughter’s age, between 5 to 7 years old, he remembers the average annual family loss of colonies was around 5 percent. This year it reached about 60 to 75 percent.
“This year has been the worst since we have been in Baker County for the last 15 years,” Latner said.
But he doesn’t want to put the blame solely on Rayonier, which he said is just trying to manage its lands as it sees fit.
Latner said the biggest problem for him has been the lack of available land, which is a result of overcrowding.
The loss rates are so bad everywhere else in the country that beekeepers have to come to the Southeast to regain some of their losses, according to Latner. And it’s made the industry a lot more competitive for land.
He said he also experienced these same issues in other counties.
“We basically got ran out of Lake County from growth,” Latner said. “There were too many people building houses; the land was worth more than keeping a grove on it.”
He said initially that was one of the biggest downfalls. But now, beekeepers are also being kicked off orange groves because growers don’t want the liability of accidentally killing bees during blooming season, he said.
Growers are extremely restricted from using pesticides during times when bees will be visiting the plants, according to Nolan. If the pesticide’s label prohibits its use during blooming season, growers that spray will be penalized for the illegal use of a pesticide, which carries a maximum fine of $10,000, according to Aaron Keller, press secretary for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Rather than take that chance, they closely cut any area that is not planted, Nolan said. But this also affects the food supply because flowers never get the chance to grow and bees are unable to collect the nectar.
It’s been an issue trying to convey these problems ever since the United States Department of Agriculture and the Bee Informed Partnership published a survey in May saying more than 40 percent of U.S. honeybee colonies died last year, Nolan said.
“That report is true, but it’s also slightly misleading,” he said. “What it doesn’t say is that Florida is losing colonies just as fast as the rest of the country. We’re just able to make them up faster.”
He said he attributes this to the year-round warm weather, which allows beekeepers to split their colonies whenever they need to. They will take a strong hive and split it in two. One half will go in a new box with a new queen, and a new colony can begin, according to Nolan.
Even so, local beekeepers are losing more than 30 percent of their colonies every year, he said.
Although splitting helps, it doesn’t guarantee protection against disease and colony collapse disorder, which is when a majority of worker bees disappear and leave the queen behind with premature bees, according to Nolan.
“We have a problem here,” he said. “People think Florida doesn’t have a beekeeping issue, but we do.”
A Future Unknown
John Peterson said he was fascinated with honeybees as a child. He remembers seeing them in an episode of the “Magic School Bus” and feeling something click inside him.
It was exhilarating to know these tiny insects could produce honey, and he wanted to be part of it.
But now as an adult, he realizes bees aren’t invincible and are in desperate need of help.
He said he’s trying to remain optimistic but worries about the future of beekeeping.
“It’s a real possibility the beekeeper will face extinction in the next 10 years or so,” he said.
But until that happens, all Peterson can do is take it one day at a time.