Beekeepers, honey aficionados have sweet time at honey bee festival.
The inaugural North Florida Honey Bee Festival at the Garden Club of Jacksonville was abuzz with beekeepers and honey aficionados Sunday who came together in sweet celebration of the industrious insect vital to crops throughout Florida and around the world.
Hosted by Bee Friends Farm of Jacksonville, the festival was sponsored by Whole Foods Market and Resident Community News Group Inc.
The festival’s goal was to raise awareness of the importance of honeybees, and raise awareness about ongoing overall decline in commercial colonies nationwide.
The festival also offered beginning beekeepers a chance to glean insight and advice from more experienced ones, said Bill Robinson, spokesman for Bee Friends Farm.
Bees pollinate about $16 billion in crops nationwide each year.
Without the bees, there would be extensive food shortages and a tremendous surge in prices for food as well as bee-produced products, said Michael Leach, head beekeeper for Bee Friends Farm.
Leach said there are roughly 2.4 million bee colonies in the United States.
About half of those colonies reside in Florida during the winter months, he said.
“So almost half of the bee population is in Florida right now. … And out of that million colonies, about 600,000 of those bees will actually go to California in February to pollinate the almond groves,” said Leach, noting pollination is a big part of the bee industry.
“It’s about $16 billion in the food industry. Bees pollinate about one-third of all the food we eat,” he said.
Leach led two of the festival’s three seminars. The first was about beekeeping in Florida, the second a question-and-answer session about all aspects of bees and beekeeping.
The third seminar focused on native bee plants. North Florida, Leach said, is prime honey territory.
It produces black gum, tupelo and wildflower honey, to name a few.
Reg Isaacson, who lives on Jacksonville’s Northside, said he’s thinking about taking up beekeeping and came to the festival “to learn more about it from the pros.”
“I’m retired, and the wife says I need something to do,” said Isaacson, a 66-year-old former machinist. His grandparents kept a small hive at their Georgia farm, where he used to spend his summers as a child.
“My grandma would give me a spoonful of honey every morning at breakfast. She said it would keep me going all day and she was right,” he said. “I love honey … and it’s amazing how hard bees work. You wouldn’t think such a little bitty bug could produce something so good.”
Bee Friends Farm sells a variety of honey. Much of the money it makes is dedicated to producing new bee colonies. The company raises its own bees, makes its own beehives by hand, and collects, bottles and sells its own honey. It is working to increase the honeybee population in North Florida.
“A healthy honeybee colony can contain 50,000 bees or more, so adding 5 to 10 million honey bees to our area in the next year is certainly something we can do,” Leach said.
A variety of Bee Friends Farm honey and other products were on sale during the festival. Proceeds from those sales will help pay for the small business to put out some more hives, Robinson said.
“We have a 100 to 150 hives out in the field, depending on what time of the year it is,” said Robinson, noting many are in Duval and Nassau counties. But the company will travel outside the region to get black mangrove, orange blossom, Tupelo and other specialty honeys, he said.
Bees, however, are struggling nationwide. Beekeepers across the country lost 31 percent of their colonies during the winter of late 2012 and early 2013. That was a 42 percent increase in colonies lost from the 2011-12 winter, according to the preliminary results of a study by the Bee Informed Partnership in collaboration with the Apiary Inspectors of America and U.S. Department of Agriculture, which was released in May.
Scientists cite pesticides, parasites, fungicides and malnutrition among the major factors resulting in the continuing decline of the honeybee population.
“It’s a growing concern, and all of us really need to be aware of what we can do to keep our bee populations healthy,” Leach said.
In addition to the seminars, the festival offered all kinds of honey and bee-made products. There were honey tastings. Children learned how to make a beeswax candle and got a close-up view through glass walls of an active beehive. There also were about 30 booths including a variety of food and craft vendors. Meg Meyer of Jacksonville brought her three sons: Michael, 11, Stephen, 10, and Thomas, 6, who were fascinated by the bees in their glass hive.
“They’re cool. Hard working,” the boys replied simultaneously when asked what they thought of the bees.
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