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Local beekeeping club forms: It’s cool to do and there’s honey, too

MANATEE —The “it” word of 2009 is “green.

There’s “green” construction that creates “green” buildings and “green” company philosophies that dovetail into “green” lifestyle choices.

A new green feed for horses just hit the market.

Where to begin going green?

There’s a way to trump all of your environmentally friendly friends with the ultimate greening strategy — and you can get into it for as little as $200.

The secret is to become a beekeeper.

It turns out that putting a bee hive in your backyard, if your homeowner association allows it, is one of the greatest green statements you can make, says Bert Kelley, who recently became the first member of the 9-month-old Lakewood Ranch-based Suncoast Beekeepers Association.

“Being a beekeeper is the ultimate tree-hugging exercise,” said Kelley, who lives in Polk County.

“It’s all about fresh air,” Kelley added. “It’s getting outdoors, taking pride in producing your own food and the knowledge that you are contributing to the pollination of all the fruits and vegetables and wild plants in an entire 2-mile area around you.”

Bees pollinate a lot of plants that other wildlife feed on, including berries and seeds.

“You definitely get the feeling of being part of nature,” said Kelley, who sells his own honey, beekeeping supplies and bees at Kelley’s Apiaries, 6709 Old Highway 37 in Lakeland.

Suncoast, which was formed to fill a gap when an earlier association dissolved, has only 16 members and, unlike Kelley who has been keeping bees since 1980, many of them are beginners.

Picking up a starter set of bees, a hive, a veil to protect against stings and a smoker to calm the bees will run $200 or less and is the perfect way to get into ground-floor greening, said Sarasota beekeeper and master gardener Kurt Rowe, who started the association along with fellow master gardener Bethany Allen Ford, who is the association’s president.

The association meets at 7 p.m. the third Thursday of every month at 7301 Merchant Court, off University Parkway in a Lakewood Ranch business park.

“The best way to see if beekeeping is for you is to come to a meeting and see if you like what you hear,” said Rowe, who is the association’s vice president.

“We usually try to have something educational at each meeting,” Rowe added. “Last month we had the state bee inspector for this area come and talk about doing splits, which is where you create another hive out of the hive you have.”

A discussion on colony collapse disorder, which has decimated the honeybee population in commercial operations, was the subject of the April meeting.

There are no restrictions in Manatee County, other than homeowner deed restrictions, to having hobby-hives on your property, said John Dawson of the University of Florida extension office in Palmetto.

A good example of a beginner who has fallen in love with the hobby is Deb Coupland-Porter, who is a beekeeper when she isn’t an emergency room nurse at Manatee Memorial Hospital.

“We are all about helping new beekeepers get started,” said Coupland-Porter, a 1985 Manatee High School graduate who, in March, assembled her first hive in her yard in the Manatee River Garden Club area of west Bradenton.

“Bees are absolutely amazing,” Coupland-Porter added. “The more you know about them, the more amazing they are. My husband thought I was kind of crazy, but they are just fascinating to watch.”

As Coupland-Porter learned by observation, the whole hive is run by a queen bee, which lives for two to three years. She is waited on foot and stinger by worker bees, who live three to four weeks.

The bees are mostly all females. Each bee has a designated role.

“Their ability to communicate as a social colony is fascinating,” Rowe said. “They are able to let each other know where there is pollen and nectar. You will see the queen producing eggs and larvae. You will wonder how the work is split up. Some bees guard the hive, some forage and some tend to the queen.”

“All the bees on the flowers are female worker bees,” Coupland-Porter said. “If the hive doesn’t have a queen, the hive will die.”

You don’t need a lot of room for your hive.

“Mine is a big box and inside are 10 frames that go in from the top of the box,” Coupland-Porter said. “The frames have a thin sheet of wax on them. That’s where the bees develop their network of cells where they put honey or pollen or eggs developing into larvae. It’s amazing.”

Coupland-Porter advises new beekeepers to get a “marked queen” from a registered apiary to make sure the queen isn’t an African honeybee, which is a much more aggressive species.

“My honeybee breed is called Carniolan and they are very gentle,” Coupland-Porter said. “I’ve only gotten stung once and that’s when I tried to pick one up. You really have to aggravate them to make them sting.”

Those interested in more information can access the association’s informative Web site, which is http://suncoastbeekeepers.pbworks.com/FrontPage.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 708-7917.

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