By Jennifer Greenhill-Taylor
Photography by Aaron Van Swearingen
Six months after setting up the first hive in his Orlando backyard in 2013, Al Moreno harvested 25 pounds of honey. A few months later he got 45 more pounds, way too much for his own use. “I decided to start selling the honey because my bees were so abundant,” he says. “I sold to work colleagues and friends, and continue to sell just through word of mouth.” Now he has “two and a half hives” and a young apprentice who is learning the art from him. His local, small-batch honey sells for $10 a pound, substantially more than the price of honey in the grocery store, but he’s happy to keep beekeeping as a hobby.
“I’ll never get rich,” he says with a laugh. “It offset my initial costs, and now pays for the bottles and supplies.”
However, other backyard beekeepers are finding that they can make a substantial amount of money under Florida’s “cottage industry” regulations, which allow them to earn up to $15,000 in a year. That number could soon double, according to David Westervelt, head apiarist for the state of Florida. They may manufacture, sell and store honey in an unlicensed kitchen, and require no licensing or permitting and little inspection.
Consumers, eager for natural, locally produced products, want to buy traceable honey for use in sweetening, allergy treatment and skin care. To make the deal even sweeter, the price of “cottage industry” honey is as high as it’s ever been—$10 to $12 a pound—and hobby beekeepers are cashing in on the trend.
“The price of bulk honey fluctuates between $2 and $2.80 a pound,” Westervelt says. “But the cottage industry honey can draw an average of $10 a pound. That’s way up. What everyone is seeking is the wholesomeness of the product, the fact that it can be bought locally, and can be traced to the local producer.”
The number of registered beekeepers in Florida has more than quadrupled in the past decade. In fact, about 500 new beekeepers register each year, many of them in Central Florida. Of the 4,500 beekeepers registered in Florida, about three-quarters are considered hobby beekeepers with up to 10 colonies, while the remaining are sideline commercial or commercial beekeepers, some with hundreds of hives. Of the 3,700 backyard beekeepers, an astonishing 3,000 are selling honey at farmers’ markets and other local retail spots, Westervelt says.
Many of the novice apiarists initially bought hives to help the bees after hearing about colony collapse and pesticide difficulties. After a couple of years’ experience, they often find they are producing enough honey to share, and they become honey-producing entrepreneurs. Not only can they sell honey at premium prices, the hives are the source of other highly prized products: beeswax, pollen, propolis and royal jelly.
But how can consumers be sure of the purity of this locally produced and little-inspected honey?
“The law in the state of Florida is very specific about honey and its purity and labeling,” says Beth Fox, a founder of Orange Blossom Beekeepers Association, a collective of commercial and hobby beekeepers from across Central Florida. She puts it bluntly: “It would be a crime to produce honey that is not 100 percent honey.” That being said, consumers have a responsibility to be aware that things may not always be as they seem. Reputable honey producers recommend education and skepticism as ways to ensure that the honey on the shelf is actually from the seller’s own, local hives. There have been instances of roadside-stand sellers relabeling jars of cheap, bulk honey and selling it as local honey for a premium price.
“Ask how many hives they have, and where they are selling the honey,” says Jean Vasicek, beekeeper for Winter Park Honey, a commercial business that sells local honey at farmers’ markets around Central Florida and online. Moreno, now president of the Orange Blossom Beekeepers Association, concurs. “The saying is ‘How do you know it’s real honey if you haven’t met the beekeeper?’” he says. If you are buying honey from an individual, ask questions: Where are the hives? How many? “Read the label,” he advises. Cottage industry rules require a real address to be on the bottle. Check it out.
These new, entrepreneurial honey producers join a centuries-long tradition in Florida. European honeybees and citrus trees entered the state together nearly 500 years ago, along with the Spanish colonists. As the citrus trees flourished in the state’s mild climate and sandy soil, so too did the bees. Before the Civil War, wild citrus trees and wild bees, descendants of those early Spanish immigrants, had spread throughout Florida’s forests.
Citrus and bees have a special bond, quite different from the mutually beneficial relationship between bees and most other plants. Citrus is a self-pollinator; thus, the trees don’t depend on bees to form fruit. On the contrary, it’s the bees who depend on the groves as a prime source of raw materials for honey production.
After the Civil War, a wave of entrepreneurs began to cultivate the wild trees. Groves popped up around Tampa and along the St. Johns River. As the groves thrived, early beekeepers sniffed those orange blossoms and recognized a good deal when they smelled it. Carting their hives in from far and wide in late winter and early spring, they let their bees gorge on orange blossom nectar, which was transformed, as if by magic, into orange blossom honey, heralding the start of a worldwide obsession. Today, honey production in the state is ranked among the top five in the nation. Commercial beekeepers from the eastern half of the U.S. still truck about 280,000 colonies to Florida in the winter because it’s easier for the colonies to rebuild in the mild weather.
Central Florida remains a center of honey production despite several harsh freezes that drove the citrus groves farther south and turned acre after acre into housing developments. The past decade has brought another threat to citrus, this one seemingly insurmountable. A deadly disease called citrus greening has decimated groves across Florida. So far, despite spending millions of dollars, the state’s top agriculture specialists have been unable to find a cure or a way to manage the disease. In Central Florida, the numbers are disheartening, with the yield cut almost in half.
As citrus growers struggle with tree die-off caused by greening, they turn to an ever-changing cocktail of chemicals to try to control the attack. In turn, the chemicals cause difficulties for commercial beekeepers who are under some tough stresses of their own. The difficulty of dealing with the reduction in their main natural resource, citrus, along with the effects of colony collapse and the new hardship of finding available places to feed their bees, have all made life tricky for the commercial beekeepers.
“The effects of citrus greening have reduced my business tremendously,” Vasicek says. “I can’t put bees in citrus groves anymore, as the spraying can hurt them.” A lot of keepers are no longer going for orange blossom honey, she says. “It will get harder and harder to find. When I started doing this years ago, I could fill a 70-pound box with orange blossom honey in two or three days. Now I couldn’t get 70 pounds in a year.”
More than 600,000 registered colonies vie for nectar and pollen in the state, along with the additional 280,000 winter visitors. To make matters even tighter for Central Florida keepers, Cape Canaveral kicked the commercial beekeepers out last year, denying them a huge area to house their bees, Westervelt says.
But commercial beekeepers are very flexible, he says, just like their busy hives, and they learn quickly that a freeze or a change of circumstances can happen in a moment. If a freeze knocks out a crop in Central Florida, apiarists can truck the hives south or out to the Panhandle to feed on tupelo, or even to California to pollinate the almond trees.
Backyard beekeepers can’t truck their hives all over the place to ensure they get fed. But bees from both commercial and backyard beekeepers in Central Florida have a wide range of crops and plants besides citrus on which to feed: palms, gallberry, palmetto, mangrove, Brazilian pepper, tallow, maleleuca, sea grape and even kudzu. Bees from backyard beehives in neighborhoods can collect nectar from annuals and hedges, and even from weeds such as goldenrod and milkweed.
As the bees have learned to adapt, so must the beekeepers, Westervelt says.
Bees have survived for millions of years, and a little thing like a freeze or another bacterium won’t keep them from their appointed rounds. Each new colony registered with the state brings more bees and more honey to sweeten tea and toast at consumers’ tables or help calm allergies.
As Westervelt sums up: “It can be a hard industry, but they are all doing good, right now.”
Orange Blossom Beekeepers Association orangeblossombeekeepers.org
Beekeepers of Volusia County, Volusia County Agricultural Center Auditorium, 3100 E. New York Ave., Deland. (386) 822-5778. volusiabeekeepers.org
Lake County Beekeepers Club, Lake County Extension office, 1951 Woodlea Road, Tavares. (352) 343-4101. lakecountybeekeepers.com
University of Florida Honeybee Research & Extension Lab
Florida State Beekeepers Association
Bee Informed Partnership
By the Numbers
• 4,500 registered beekeepers in 2017
• 3,700 of them are backyard beekeepers
• 600,000 registered bee colonies
• 17 million pounds of honey produced in 2016
• Worth about $27 million
• More than 8,000 citrus growers
• 500,000 acres of citrus groves
• 28,414 acres devoted to citrus
• 88% infected by citrus greening
• 45% loss of yield
Statistics from the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) and Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs.