Beekeeper sweet on honeybees
2002-12-24 - John Murawski -
BOCA RATON -- Like a priest blessing his flock with incense wafting from a censer, Jack Rollins pacifies thousands of honeybees with hazy puffs from his hand-held smoker, then lifts the beehive lids to inspect the inside.
Though feared by some for their sting, these bees are about as gentle as butterflies. Occasionally one alights on Rollins' forearm, and the beekeeper blows it off.
But fears of African "killer" bees and an anti-bee bias have made it hard for Rollins, 78, to keep up his beloved hobby in Boca Raton.
Five years ago the city asked Rollins to move 108 hives out of his back yard after residents complained. He had to move the bees again after pilots at Boca Raton Airport complained of bee droppings on parked airplanes. He is down to 17 hives kept at several locations.
Surly suburbanites are not his only problem. During the past decade or so, honeybees have been plagued by mites and beetles that suck fluid out of a bee's body or take over the hive to lay their eggs.
"It's harder today than it's ever been in history," Rollins said. "For 150 million years, they took care of themselves." The state's apiary inspector for South Florida will tell you the same thing.
"You gotta be some kind of wizard today to keep an insect off another insect," said Bud Grant. "Only the beekeeper dedicated to saving the life of bees is going to be successful."
There are between 1,200 and 1,300 beekeepers statewide, 21 of them in Palm Beach County, according to the Apiary Division of the Florida Department of Agriculture. There were twice as many beekeepers in the county only a decade ago, Grant said.
But they have been pushed out by development, pestilence and fluctuating honey prices. As for those African bees -- or "Africanized" bees that have mated with European honeybees and produced hybrid offspring -- they really do exist. These bees are superb honey producers, but not domesticated. They are aggressive and prone to attack, like yellowjackets or wasps. The state runs an interceptor program to prevent the spread of African bees in Florida. Grant has more than 100 traps in his region, laced with pheromones to attract the bees that are brought here by ships from South America. State inspectors have killed more than 30 swarms since the program's inception 16 years ago.
Beehive efficient machine Honeybees, on the other hand, are in high demand. Farmers nationwide pay the state's commercial beekeepers to truck their bees to orange orchards in Central Florida, cotton fields in Alabama and cranberry bogs in Maine to pollinate the flowers so the plants set fruit and produce a crop.
The beehive is a marvel of technology and organization. Bees keep the hive temperature regulated by exiting if it becomes too warm and generating wind drafts to cure the honey.
"As far as bacteria and germ-free, the inside of this hive is the most sterile place on Earth," Rollins said.
The air flow is generated by a wind tunnel effect of the hive design and aided by bees that flap their wings to ventilate and cure the honey.
"Sometimes, when you go out there at night, it smells like a candy factory when they're curing it," Grant said.
Each species of flower produces a distinct type of honey. Grapefruit honey is virtually clear and "water thin," Rollins said, while honey made from the blooms of Macadamia nut trees "tastes between molasses and chocolate -- it's good honey."
Rollins, a semi-retired Kentucky barber who came to Boca Raton in 1951, sells honey from his barbershop on Camino Real.
"One million flowers had to be visited to make that 1 pound of honey," he said, pointing at bottle. "In a bee's lifetime -- 42 days -- that one bee would make maybe a half-tablespoon of honey."
The most popular Florida honeys come from orange blossoms and palmetto blooms. Up north, clover honey is preferred.
"Once you get into honey, you develop a taste for it, like fine wine," Grant said. "And the bees are as nice as the honey. "They're just beautiful insects," Grant said. "I love them."
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