Buzzin' Around: Lee County Extension class ‘Introduction to Beekeeping’ offers sweet success

Don Murray, vice president of the Beekeepers Association of Southwest Florida, checks one of his honey bee hives to see how his bees are producing honey in Ft. Myers on Thursday morning. Murray has approximately 20 hives which are home to some 30 to 50 thousand honey bees. Jason Easterly/Special to the Daily News

Photo by JASON EASTERLY // Buy this photo

Don Murray, vice president of the Beekeepers Association of Southwest Florida, checks one of his honey bee hives to see how his bees are producing honey in Ft. Myers on Thursday morning. Murray has approximately 20 hives which are home to some 30 to 50 thousand honey bees. Jason Easterly/Special to the Daily News

  • What: Introduction to Beekeeping
  • When: Friday, July 1, 2011, 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Where: Lee County Extension Office
  • Cost: $175
  • Age limit: 18+
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First there are the yellow and black caution signs to guard against unwary wanderers. Then scores of wooden crates strewn about in stacks as if spilled from a passing freight train. Finally, there’s the hum of tens of thousands of tiny wings.

“This is a typical bee yard; it’s kind of a mess,” confirmed Don Murray, vice president of the Beekeepers’ Association of Southwest Florida.

The messiness belies an extreme order, one that fascinates even seasoned beekeepers. It’s also part of the intrigue for novices who desire to move from admirer to hobbyist.

They can make the educated leap this summer as the University of Florida, IFAS Lee County Extension offers a four-week Introduction to Beekeeping course in association with BASF. Agriculture & Natural Resources Agent Roy Beckford has offered the class since 2007. He noted beekeeping is not only a satisfying hobby, but “vital to the economy and health of our citizens and those in other states and countries that we feed each day.”

What’s the buzz?

Most folks know bees harvest pollen and nectar and manufacture honey. But there’s a lot more to it than that. Take the severe division of labor, for instance: male bees perform a reproductive role only, the queen lays the eggs, the worker bees — all female — do everything else. It’s the type of organization any CEO could only dream to emulate.

It’s also a lot to learn, and the UF/IFAS class promises to make it less daunting.

“Because the course provides all basic beekeeping equipment and tools in addition to theory and practice, the number of students who go on to become active beekeepers currently stands at 100 percent,” Beckford observed.

The rewards are intrinsic. The mere fascination of watching bees go in and out of the hive is a calming experience, said Murray.

There are many material rewards, too. Murray used to be a stock broker, he said, “so this is all tangible, when before it was all intangible.”

He expects to net 15 to 20 gallons of honey this year, from his 20 or so hives. That’s down from last year, due to dry weather. He sells the honey and does pretty well. Honey prices are expected to increase this year, he said.

Bee aware?

Some beekeepers also rent out their hives to pollinate agricultural crops, traveling to northern and western agricultural states. That can be very lucrative. Although Murray doesn’t offer this service, he points out how important it is.

“One-third of the world’s food supply needs bees for pollination,” he said.

Beckford put it in local terms, saying “crop agriculture — including backyard vegetable, fruit and herb production — requires bees for pollination of flowers. In fact, citrus as well as all the cucurbits we produce in Florida (watermelon, squash and cucumbers) would not be available without the presence of bees as pollinators.”

The need for good practices in beekeeping becomes more urgent as bees face greater danger. Colony collapse disorder is a mysterious affliction that can wipe out an entire hive. The phenomenon may be attributable to parasites, fungus, environmental chemicals, or a combination of factors.

Another function of keeping domestic bees is to guard against Africanized bee colonies. According to Murray, bees from Africa evolved to deal with fewer food resources and are predisposed to greater defensiveness. There is a lot of public misconceptions about “killer bees,” but best practices for mitigating the problems with Africanized bees will be covered in the class.

Murray contends beekeeping need not be a labor-intensive endeavor. He said small hives can be tended once every week or so. Murray is finding himself more involved. He took the Introduction to Beekeeping class in 2009, after already having some bees. Now, he’s raising his own queens, which involves a lot of coordination and timing, as an early developing queen will kill the others in an operation.

Hive-minded

Murray employs all the trappings of a beekeeper, including a hood and veil, but only as needed.

“I prefer to work without protection,” he said. “I can see better.”

A smoker filled with smoldering pine needles (no mulch or other chemically treated materials) subdues the bees “so they know I’m coming,” he said. He explained the bees think there’s a forest fire and gorge themselves on honey in preparation, rendering them a little fat and happy.

“As you see, bees are pretty docile,” he commented. Nonetheless, an occasional sting is part of the deal. After a while, it seems like nothing more than a mosquito bite, he added.

Beckford indicated a good candidate to become a beekeeper “is patient, moderate in behavior and conscious of the environment,” and can come from any walk of life. “We have taught doctors, firefighters, nurses, economists as well as homemakers the art and science of beekeeping,” he said.

Since inception, the class has gained popularity, he said, with 40 to 45 students each year and a waiting list of 15 to 20.

Winnie the Pooh said, “the only reason for being a bee is to make honey.”

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