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One year after Hurricane Ian, Florida beekeepers move steadily toward recovery

A healthy population of bees in a hive, nourished by this fall’s bloom of Brazilian peppertree. (Courtesy of Tammy Sadler)
A healthy population of bees in a hive, nourished by this fall’s bloom of Brazilian peppertree. (Courtesy of Tammy Sadler)

The 150-mph winds and 13-foot storm surge generated by Hurricane Ian have long receded since the storm made landfall in Florida over a year ago. But beekeepers Michael and Tammy Sadler have spent the days since, 380 and counting, reminded of what the storm took and the damage it left behind.

For the Sadlers, the aftermath of Ian lingers in the hours of labor required to regenerate the 800 hives they lost, a multi-day process of physically splitting hives in two. The storm’s repercussions surface, too, in the couple's checkbook, after spending $57,000 in the last 12 months to replace equipment, feed and queen bees.

Still, the pair, parents to third-generation beekeepers, never considered resigning from their livelihood.

“You can’t quit,” Michael Sadler said. “We’ve got to keep taking care of the bees regardless.”

“We’re farmers, and farmers are a special breed,” Tammy Sadler said, explaining how she and her husband continue pushing forward. “It’s just a love for honey bees and what we do.”

As co-owners of Bee-Haven Honey Inc. in Central Florida, the Sadlers form part of the 5,000 beekeepers registered in the state, an industry still recovering from the wreckage of Hurricane Ian’s near-Category 5 conditions. The storm landed in Florida’s Gulf Coast on September 28, 2022 and proceeded to tear a140-mile path through 10 counties and several barrier islands.

An estimated15% of the nation’s bees laid in its course, resulting in the destruction of upwards of 150,000 hives.

Within a month of the storm’s landfall, the nonprofit Greater Good Charities partnered with the Florida State Beekeepers Association and national beekeeping suppliers to donate and distribute feed across events in Arcadia, Fort Myers and Winter Haven.

The relief efforts entailed an unprecedentedreconnection of the beekeeping community.

Nearly 13 months later, the status of recovery varies for beekeepers throughout the state.

“There’s a few people that have not completely recovered and may never recover,” said Florida State Beekeepers Association President John Coldwell.

While in the minority, some beekeepers still don’t have their homes, businesses or  infrastructure, Coldwell said.

Hurricane Ian robbed beekeeper B. Keith Councell of all three.

The storm ripped through Councell’s equipment, the roof of his home and his farms in Arcadia, Cape Coral, Fort Myers and Pine Island. Beekeepers traveled from the Florida panhandle to lend him their labor in rummaging through the wreckage at his various farm locations.

While Councell was forced to permanently close his Pine Island operation, he also moved his family from an RV to a newly purchased home, located on the property next to his Cape Coral farm. This proximity eases his transition from working to returning to his wife and two daughters.

The past year has been a blur, Councell said.

Councell spends his days clearing damaged trees from his Cape Coral farm and splitting his remaining population of 500 beehives, an effort to regain the 2,800 he lost in the storm.

Rebuild, repaint, replace, he said. He hasn’t stopped to count his bees since.

“This is the path I have to get done, so that’s what I’m doing,” Councell said. “You gotta set your nose to the stone and keep going.”

He hopes to return to producing honey by next spring, he said.

“Everything in beekeeping is on a timeline according to a season,” Councell explained.

In a beekeeper’s calendar, the fall months mark an especially important time for honey harvesting thanks to the bloom of Brazilian peppertree from September through November, a significant source of nectar for bees. Hurricane Ian’s high-speed winds and mass flooding devastated these blooms, stripping the plants nearly bare.

The damage didn’t just rob bees of their honey crop — it launched a domino effect of poor honey production, with the bees’ state of malnutrition spilling over into the following year.

The pollen and nectar lost from the destruction of forage left the bees struggling to bulk up for the winter, while forcing beekeepers to purchase additional feed. As a result, bees entered the next season of honey crop in March, the orange tree bloom, at a disadvantage.

They were not yet big enough in size to produce sufficient amounts of honey, Michael Sadler explained.

In 2021, the year before Ian hit, the Sadlers made enough honey from the peppertree season to fill 73 drums. The honey they made in the fall 2022 season filled just six drums.

Now halfway into this year’s honey flow, Tammy Sadler predicted the couple will reach 35 drums of honey.

“We would consider that a win,” she said.

The greatest relief for the Sadlers came two weeks ago, at the first sight of this year’s peppertree bloom; their bees returned to making honey.

“It actually looked like we might finally get out of this,” Michael Sadler said.

For beekeeper Jeremy Ham, owner of Old Florida Bee Company, the turning point of recovery came in January, when the progress of his bee population became undeniable.

Ham suffered $2 million in damages from the destruction of hives, crops and equipment in southwestern Florida flood waters so high they forced him to swim.

"It was just a bad experience that you couldn't blame on anything,” Ham said.

Instead, he redirected his attention to the work he needed to accomplish. He began before the floodwaters fully receded, assessing the damage to his farms across Englewood, Venice and South Sarasota the day after the storm.

Ian decimated his bee count, taking him from 6,000 to 2,400 hives. After a year of splitting his hives, supported by the loaning of worker bees and the donation of 100 queen bees from fellow beekeepers, Ham fully recuperated his losses in hives.

He takes no bee for granted.

"I view the world that I deserve nothing,” he said.

“So when you have just about everything taken away, but you deserve nothing,” he said, “you realize — ‘You know what, we still have 2,400 hives.’”

“You’re able to keep going.”

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