LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Relaxed state law and an increased emphasis to preserve the threatened honey bee population has prompted more Manatee County residents to become registered beekeepers with honey bee colonies.
Vital to the national and state agriculture industry, honey bees pollinate about one-third of all the fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States. The honeycombs they build produce honey and its by-products.
Rather than hire professional exterminators for an unwanted bee infestation, the emphasis now is to call a local beekeeper who will remove a hive or swarm of bees found in trees, utility boxes, light fixtures and walls of homes, and relocate them to bee colonies, which beekeepers often have in their own backyards.
"The state has decided to take it upon itself to control the honey bee population by taking away home rule for cities and municipalities regarding backyard beekeeping," said Kent Bontrager, president of the Suncoast Beekeepers Association. "The whole idea is to flood Florida with good genetic stock, and so far it seems to work out well."
Bontrager, a Sarasota resident, is one of a growing number of private beekeepers who maintains several bee colonies in his backyard. When called out to remove honey bees hives, Bontrager brings them home to colonize.
The cost to remove honey bee hives depends on the situation and how long and hard the beekeeper has to work. Beekeepers generally don't remove swarms, but a hive could start at about $150.
"If the bees get in the eaves of a wall, which can happen when a builder doesn't seal up the wall properly, you have to cut the wall open, cut it out, and put a trap on the wall to starve the bees out, which could take as many as 30 days," noted Kevin Lausman, a licensed master beekeeper with the University of Florida and former Suncoast Beekeepers Association president.
Bontrager, who just celebrated National Pollinators Week, promoting the health of honey bees as a vital part of the ecosystem, said Florida no longer has the more aggressive Africanized bees.
"Florida has overcome that problem," he said.
Private registered beekeepers, like Bontrager and Lausman, aren't alone. The Ritz-Carlton Members Golf Club in Lakewood Ranch and O'Brien Family Farms in East Manatee County have both become registered beekeepers.
The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, recognized by the Audubon Society as an environmental leader, has set up a honey bee colony next to the eighth tee box, near a lake and a wild flower pollinating area the golf club specifically planted for the bees. Several boxes give the bees an opportunity to build their honeycombs inside the hives and thrive in a protected area.
Honey, which will soon be extracted from the combs, is intended for use in the upscale downtown Sarasota Ritz-Carlton hotel.
"Our spa wants some of the honey coming from these boxes for spa treatments for guests. The executive chef at the hotel will be using the honey for dishes he's creating, Our Jack Dusty restaurant is creating a signature drink, and the hotel is exploring the possibility of jarring the honey and putting it into our signature shop," said Sean O'Brien, director of golf course grounds.
"Our members really like the idea," he said.
At O'Brien Family Farms, a whole room is dedicated to beekeeping, complete with an observation hive the farm purchased for students to visit during the school year. The bees pollinate the farm's watermelon, cucumbers and squash. Honey from the hives is bottled and sold on the farm stand.
"It's such a natural product, and it's amazing how much bee honey people buy. It's one of our biggest sellers," said farm owner Tom O'Brien. More information about beekeeping available at edis.ifas.ufl.edu/topic_beekeeping.
Kathryn Moschella, Lakewood Ranch reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7010. Follow her on Twitter @MoschellaHerald.