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Florida beekeepers rally community in Hurricane Ian recovery efforts

From left: Florida State Beekeepers Association President John Coldwell, Amy Vu, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences program extension agent in apiculture, and beekeeper B. Keith Councell. (Courtesy of Bori Bennett)
From left: Florida State Beekeepers Association President John Coldwell, Amy Vu, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences program extension agent in apiculture, and beekeeper B. Keith Councell. (Courtesy of Bori Bennett)

B. Keith Councell is a beekeeper stripped of his bees – 2,800 of them spread across his farms in Arcadia, Cape Coral, Pine Island and Fort Myers. 

His honeybees were among the 400,000 Florida bee colonies in Hurricane Ian’s path in September.

Ian decimated 100,000 total hives, which were toppled and drowned in 12-foot storm surges as high as eight beehives. The state’s surviving bees were left starving from the storm’s destruction of foliage, the bees' source of energy and protein. 

Deprived of bees, feed and equipment, beekeepers found relief among themselves. 

“No one complained. No one said a bad thing,” said Florida State Beekeepers Association President John Coldwell. 

Men, women and children, he said, just got back to work. 

To keep their remaining bees alive, beekeepers must supplement the loss of plant nectar and pollen. 

The association collaborated with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) to solicit nonprofit aid, said Amy Vu, IFAS program extension agent in apiculture. 

Greater Good Charities, an international nonprofit, distributed 508,800 pounds of syrup and 96,900 pounds of pollen to over 100 beekeepers across events in Arcadia, Fort Myers and Winter Haven. 

National beekeeping supplier Mann Lake Bee Ag & Supply coordinated logistics, providing syrup, equipment and the distribution site for the Winter Haven donation event. 

“Everybody put the business on the back burner and the compassion on the front,” Coldwell said.

Mann Lake’s competitors, Dadant & Sons Inc. and South Florida Bee Supplies LLC, also donated products in Winter Haven, according to Coldwell.

The recovery efforts reunited beekeepers who hadn’t spoken in decades. 

Councell, 49, said he received calls from beekeepers he knew in his 20s, whom he hadn’t talked to in 20 years.

“We saw a reconnection of the commercial beekeeping operation that Florida hasn’t seen in 25, probably 30 years,” Coldwell said. 

“And the camaraderie and the conversation was just — it was spectacular.”

Eli Mendes, beekeeper and owner of Tropic Trailer, told Central Florida Ag News he lost 500 of his 5,000 hives. 

That didn’t stop him from shutting his business down to move materials and provide the distribution site for the Fort Myers donation event, Coldwell said. 

Mendes reached out to beekeepers like Michael and Tammy Sadler, co-owners of Bee-Haven Honey Farm Inc., to assess their needs and coordinate relief.  

“It was a grassroots effort that started with a phone call,” Tammy Sadler said. 

The Sadlers received 12,000 pounds of liquid feed and 2,000 pounds of pollen at the Winter Haven donation event. They’ve since exhausted the liquid feed and applied the pollen to 1,400 of their hives. 

The couple lost 140 hives and 80 barrels of honey in the hurricane – $120,000 lost in honey sales alone.

Bees normally produce surplus honey from September to December, bolstering their population thanks to the abundance of nectar from the Brazilian peppertree. 

Hurricane Ian hit during the shrub’s peak bloom. 

Flooded forage and crushed colonies will force beekeepers to play catch-up for the next year.

“Our overall number [of bees] going into next year is going to be down,” Michael Sadler explained. “Everyone’s going to be starting the year off behind.” 

For Councell, the year won’t start at all. 

He predicted he will suffer a two- to three-year gap before his business returns to its pre-Ian state. 

“Since the hurricane, I haven’t made one dollar,” he said. 

Councell’s main challenge isn’t the lack of pollen – it’s his lack of pollinators. 

The number of bees he lost prevents him from doing his typical pollination this year, he said. 

“Some of us just need bees.” 

At one of his Pine Island shops, just three hives, two telephone poles and a wall remain standing. 

The storm reduced his extraction equipment to scraps. It tore half of the shingles off of the roof of his home, leaking rain inside and forcing his family to move to a camper.

But he has his daughters and his health, he said. And his truck.

When two beekeepers had no way to secure syrup at the Arcadia donation event, Councell drove it to them. 

“For me, it was better to help out some of my friends that have bees to get the supplies they needed.” 

Anyone wishing to support recovering beekeepers can donate to the GoFundMe created by the Florida State Beekeepers Association.

Luena is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.