St. Augustine, Fla. — Barehanded, David Barnes lifted off the top of a wooden beehive and eased out one of half-a-dozen frames loaded with honeybees as several dozen people edged in closer around him during the first day of the University of Florida's Bee College.
He didn't warn them not to try this at home. After all, the purpose of Bee College is to get more beekeepers. He did caution them to remember how they'd feel if someone came along and took the roof off their house.
The beekeepers in training smiled at the notion, but got the point.
About half of them were wearing white beekeeper overalls, hats, and veils. Mr. Barnes, a state bee inspector with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, wore a hat and veil, but was casual about the rest of the gear.
He'd already used a smoker on the bees to cause disorient and temporarily confuse the colony so they're easier to work with.
"Bees are gentle ... most often they won't get upset," Barnes said, cautioning the beekeepers to be deliberate and calm in their motions when dealing with bees. But, he warned, there are exceptions.
The crowd listened intently, even the ones who have been in the beekeeping business awhile.
As Barnes explained at the start, there are always new things to learn.
Agriculture experts are hoping lots of people learn about honey bees and start keeping bees.
There's a corresponding need for honeybees. In the 1940s there were approximately 5 million colonies, now the estimate is 2.4 million. One study estimates since 1990 about one quarter (almost one million) of all managed honeybee colonies have been lost.
Possible reasons for the loss include mites, pesticides, and something known as Colony Collapse Disorder, where bees basically disappear from their colony.
Why the need for hone bees?
It's not about the honey they produce, said Dr. Ellis. It's about food.
Approximately one-third of the world's food production is dependent on the pollination efforts of honeybees.
"Honey production is, pardon the pun, a drop in the bucket compared to what bees actually do for us," Ellis said. "It's the pollination industry that really is what commercial beekeeping is about."
The pollination industry is people who keep hundreds maybe thousands of colonies that they load in trucks and haul to where growers and farmers need them.
Ellis describes them as "colonies for hire." An almond grower may rent the colonies while almonds are in bloom in that area, then blueberry growers in Michigan want them, then they go to North Dakota for clover and then Florida for melons.
Ellis estimates that about 70 percent of pollination is done by commercial beekeepers.
UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences aids both hobbyist and commercial beekeepers. By getting people interested in bee raising as a hobby, it's hoped some will then go into the commercial business.
Bee College gets newcomers started as well as providing advanced programs for those in the commercial end. When Ellis began the program last year, about 170 people turned out. This year there are between 220-230 in the program at UF's Whitney Labs across from Marineland.
But Bee College is no easy A.
Beginners find themselves doing hands-on work with bees along with learning the basics of beekeeping. Learning varies from spot the queen to artificial insemination of queens. Lab work includes nosema and tracheal mite dissections. Honey extraction, candlemaking, and even Welsh honey judge training are among courses offered over the two days.
Local vineyards said they were having problems with grapes. The more people he talked to about gardening, the more he found people had noticed the lack of beekeepers.
"So my wife and I decided to step in and attack the problem ourselves. I've got so much to learn, but this is pretty good," Mr. Hall said, as he headed over to get on of the beekeeper hats and learn firsthand how to set up a beehive.
Virginia and Carl Webb, on the other hand, qualify as experts. Both spoke at Bee College.
In 2005 their honey was awarded the "best in the world" designation at the 2005 Apimondia World Congress. Virginia Webb wears the medal they won for the designation from honey made from sourwood trees.
Carl Webb is an advocate and breeder of Russian bees and thinks they will help increase the genetic pool for queens. The Russian bee is a variation of the European honey bee and was introduced to a section of Russia 150 years ago. It has shown a resistance to mites.
After retiring from the Forestry Service, Webb turned the hobby he'd pursued into a full-time business. The couple own about 400 colonies and live in Clarksville, Ga.
Those who have eaten the honey at the Dillard House in Georgia have tasted their product.
"We sell them tons and tons of honey, and they ship it all over the country," Webb said.
And, yes, he does get stung. About 20 times a day. "Usually I hardly notice it," Webb said.
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