Tupelo Tango Drought, dredging, pests and disease haunt region’s tupelo honey industry By Jason Dehart
Buzzing around the fields and flowers of Northwest Florida is a tiny economic dynamo, the most behind-the-scenes kind of worker you’ll find. The humble honeybee may be small, but in the grand scheme of things, we’d starve without it. The little critters are so important that even NASA uses them to study how climate change might be affecting pollination patterns.
In the grocery store, the average consumer may not give the honeybee a second thought. But beekeepers across the Sunshine State and the rest of the nation are fighting a holding action against pests, wacky weather patterns and environmental disruptions.
In Florida, honeybees are responsible for some 80 percent of all insect pollination, and honey is a $20 million — or more — industry.
"We’ve got to have (honeybees)," said Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Charles H. Bronson. "Fruits and vegetables and flowering plants are absolutely dependent not only on the honeybee but any type of insects that go from flower to flower. That’s how we get our food supply."
Beekeepers are well aware of the role their tiny insects play in the state economy.
"In Florida, you wouldn’t have 90 percent of agriculture without the honeybee," said beekeeper Roger Twitchell, vice president of the Florida State Beekeepers Association. Twitchell and wife Ellyn Hutson, president of the Apalachee Beekeepers Association, are active hobbyists with 16 hives at their Caney Branch Farm near Wacissa in Jefferson County. "So then what is the economic impact of the honey industry? It’s not $20 million. It’s billions of dollars."
There are all kinds of honey to be harvested in Florida, such as clover, wildflower, palmetto and orange blossom. Perhaps the most famous is the revered tupelo honey, harvested from the nectar of the white tupelo tree, also known as the ogeechee tupelo. This special tree grows only in the river swamps of the Apalachicola and Chipola rivers, and some are even found along the Ochlockonee and Choctawhatchee rivers.
"Virtually all tupelo honey is produced in the 850 area code, and it’s popular all over the world," said longtime beekeeper Laurence Cutts, 74, past president of the Florida State Beekeepers Association and a former apiary inspector.
"In this area, everybody pretty much knows that the best tupelo honey comes from Gulf County," said 22-year commercial beekeeper Don Smiley of Smiley’s Apiaries in Wewahitchka. "The reason for that is — and this is important — when our tupelo trees are in bloom, and our bees are working the tupelo on this side of the (Apalachicola) river, there’s nothing else in bloom at the same time. So all they’re going to make is tupelo honey."
Tupelo honey is so popular that it has worked its way into pop culture. There’s the famous Van Morrison song, and a Panhandle beekeeper (played by Peter Fonda) was the central character in "Ulee’s Gold," a film by Florida-born director Victor Nunez.
As long as tupelo trees keep growing, tupelo honey will be collected. But there’s a problem. Smiley said the region is losing ogeechee tupelo trees.
"The U.S. Geological Survey says that since the 1950s, 44 percent of the tupelo trees have disappeared," he said. "The swampy terrain that the tupelo need to live has been decimated and slowly been degraded over the years."
However, Smiley said he had two back-to-back "bumper crops" of honey this year and last. He said last year’s production was better than this year’s, but not by much. He produced 109 drums of tupelo in 2008 and 95 this year.
Smiley blames the loss of trees on irregular weather patterns, periods of drought, and navigation dredging on the Apalachicola. Upstream, the city of Atlanta’s water hoarding hasn’t helped matters.
"The biggest threat to tupelo honey is the amount of water they take from Lake Lanier in Georgia," he said.
When the river is down and sloughs dry up, upland species of trees move in and can crowd out the tupelo. The same thing happens when dredge material is pumped up on the riverbank. But then again, too much water can be a bad thing. A flood in 1994 cost Smiley 60 hives of bees.
Meanwhile, Bronson said there is talk of re-establishing the tupelo in places where it has been lost. But he cautioned that if the weather and water conditions don’t remain stable, doing so could be tricky.
"You could lose more and more, and you could lose your (new plantings) as well as your old trees," he said. "And let’s face it, trees only live to be so old. We’re lucky enough to have live oaks that live in their 200s."
A Constant Battle
In general, the beekeeping business is a hard way of life, and it makes for a pretty laborious hobby as well. Gone are the days when a set of colonies could take care of themselves with little human management.
"Today, if you’re running hundreds of hives, you have to be very vigilant," said the Florida State Beekeepers Association’s Twitchell.
At one time, Florida ranked as one of the top honey-producing states. In recent years it has lost that top ranking, no thanks to pests such as the varroa mite and tracheal mite that came to this country in the 1980s. Adding to bee misery are common pests such as the wax moth and hive beetle. Bacterial disease also takes its toll if a beekeeper isn’t wary.
"You have to be out there checking on them; you have to be prepared to deal with it if you have hive beetles or if you have varroa mites or you have other pests and diseases that come into your hive," Twitchell said.
The varroa mite is essentially a tick that sucks the lifeblood from bees. The tracheal mite infests their airways. These pests caused havoc when they were first discovered in the United States in the mid-1980s.
Beekeeper Cutts, of Chipley, said the tracheal mite was found in 1984 and caused quite a commotion in the beekeeping industry, even though "it didn’t turn out as bad a pest as everybody feared."
Still, there were telling ripple effects in the market.
"There were quarantines, restrictions on moving bees, the price of honey declined drastically because of honey imports from China and Argentina … the honey market in general was very depressed," Cutts said. "A lot of beekeepers just went out of business. Because it wasn’t economically feasible to stay in it."
Added Don Smiley, "When the mites came in, it put a lot of beekeepers out of business. Then colony collapse disorder came along."
According to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, more than 22 states have reported experiencing sudden colony loss due to colony collapse disorder. Adult bees fail to return food to the colony, which then collapses and dies. Researchers blame a variety of things, including viruses, pesticides and fungi. There’s even the idea that the proliferation of cell phone radio waves might have something to do with it, a problem Bronson alluded to in an interview.
"They’re still trying to figure out how much sound waves and energy waves affect honey bees and their natural ability," he said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture now says that whatever the culprit, something is compromising the bees’ ability to make essential proteins.
Smiley said that he himself lost 36 percent of his hives last year due to the disorder. Ordinarily, a loss of about 10 percent could be expected, he said.
"I don’t think we’ll see those numbers again unless they come up with a way to exterminate the varroa mite, which is impossible to do," he said.
Pure honey. That’s the goal behind the state’s new "Standard of Identity" law for honey, which became effective this past July. Florida is the first state in the country to pass such a regulation, according to Bronson.
The new standard essentially prohibits any additives, chemicals or other "adulterants" from being in any honey produced, processed or sold in Florida.
"We felt that it was appropriate for us to support the bee industry to make sure that if something was sold as honey, that it’s pure honey and not a honey substitute," Bronson said.
Beekeepers are thrilled by the new law.
"It’s the best thing that came along for the honey," Smiley said. "Been trying to get that law for years. If a label says pure honey, it better not have any corn syrup or anything else in it. It’s a clean, wholesome product, and we don’t want our industry blemished."
Cutts hopes it will help Florida beekeepers combat some of their competition.
"We hope it’ll be an effective tool in dealing with the imported honey that’s not always pure honey," he said.