- Associated Press - Sunday, June 28, 2015

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - Jason Deeringer, wearing a white protective jacket, hood and veil, paid no mind to the bees that buzzed around him as he inspected their hive.

Deeringer, 27, is one of more than 3,800 registered Florida beekeepers - a number that grows by about 100 every month.

A surge of interest from amateur bee enthusiasts, a seasonal influx of out-of-state beekeepers and efforts to educate the public about the importance of bees have resulted in a 145 percent increase in managed bee colonies during the past eight years, experts say.

The state is now home to nearly 400,000 bee colonies, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture.

“It’s a very big business,” said Deeringer of Winter Haven, former president and current apiary manager for the Orange Blossom Beekeepers Association in Orange County. “A lot of people aren’t aware of how many beekeepers we have in Florida - Central Florida in particular.”

Honeybees are crucial to Florida’s $120 billion agriculture industry. Among the vegetables and fruits they pollinate are blueberries, watermelon, cantaloupe, squash, cucumbers, peppers and avocados.

“People have become aware of the importance of bees,” said Tom Nolan, president of the Florida Beekeepers Association. “They finally understand that a third of our food is produced by pollination.”

The buzz isn’t all good, however.

The number of colonies is growing, but it’s partly because commercial beekeepers are going to extraordinary lengths to keep the industry viable, said Jamie Ellis, associate professor of entomology at the University of Florida’s Honey Bee Research and Extension Laboratory.

When bees die off, beekeepers split their colonies to try to make up for the losses. The practice weakens the parent colony, which experts said can take time to recover its honey-making ability or die altogether.

David Webb’s answer has been to diversify. When he started out as a commercial beekeeper two decades ago, Webb sold bulk honey and did some pollination. Now he makes more from bottling and selling honey at his store near Christmas, he said.

“We’re spending so much time and labor dividing the bees to keep them steady,” said Webb, 53, owner of Webb’s Honey. “It’s just taken the profitability out of beekeeping.”

The challenges haven’t discouraged out-of-state apiarists from bringing an estimated 280,000 colonies to Florida during the state’s mild winters to strengthen them for their annual trip to the San Joaquin Valley. About 1.6 million colonies are needed every February for almond pollination, according to the Almond Board of California.

The burgeoning number of bees has contributed to a surge in honey production.

Florida produced 14.7 million pounds of honey worth $30.6 million in 2014, placing it fourth in the country behind North Dakota, Montana and South Dakota, U.S. Department of Agriculture figures show. U.S. honey production rose 19 percent from the previous year, and prices went up, too.

Yet the bee population continues to be stung by pesticide poisoning, fungi, viruses, bacteria, parasitic mites, beetles, a lack of genetic diversity and nutritional deficits, according to the USDA.

Colony collapse disorder, in which adult bees abandon their colonies, has gotten particular public attention since it came to light in 2006.

Hobbyists have swarmed to beekeeping as the state Department of Agriculture, UF, the news media and beekeepers themselves have sounded the alarm.

In 2014, President Barack Obama established a Pollinator Health Task Force that recommends reducing honeybee-colony losses to no more than 15 percent in 10 years and providing 7 million acres for pollinators.

Last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed a rule that would bar pesticide use when commercial bees are pollinating blooms.

If Gov. Rick Scott signs off, Florida will be getting a new bee-research center at UF. The Legislature approved $2.5 million for the project in its session that ended June 19. Scott vetoed the project last year.

The university also runs a two-day Bee College in two Florida locations and the Caribbean, a Master Beekeeper program and a new bee-research symposium.

Backyard beekeepers got a boost in 2012 when Scott signed a law, sponsored by state Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, giving the Department of Agriculture sole jurisdiction over where hives can be placed. It was enacted in response to local-government bans on residential beekeeping.

Now Floridians can keep bees on nonagricultural land as long as they obey rules such as providing fencing. The number of colonies is limited to three on one-quarter acre or less, increasing to a maximum of 100 on 10 or more acres.

“The hobbyist is what’s helping bring the bees back,” said Billy Fussell, 50, owner of Bee Fussy Apiary in Leesburg and president of Lake County Beekeepers.

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Information from: Orlando Sentinel, http://www.orlandosentinel.com/

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