Who’s saving Miami’s bees?

The next time you pop a handful of almonds in your mouth, thank Miami’s bees.

John Gentzel's lecture. (Courtesy of J & P Apiary)
John Gentzel’s lecture. (Courtesy of J & P Apiary)

It all started innocently enough, one Sunday afternoon at a friend’s potluck dinner. Kim Gentzel, a local commercial beekeeper, gave a presentation. She piqued my curiosity when she mentioned that Miami bees were trucked to California every year to pollinate almonds. “Are you kidding?” I asked. “Why would California want anything from Miami?”

There’s an old saying among beekeepers: “If you ask 100 beekeepers the same question, you will get 101 different answers.”

The answer to my question sent me on a two-week quest into the world of bees and at the end of it I was really only just beginning — with way more than 100 questions. I did, however, come to see Miami in a different light — all because of a little flying insect.

Sunshine state bees and bear state almonds

That sweet, golden-colored syrupy liquid you know as honey is the end product of a vastly complex natural process that humans have been experimenting with since cavemen roamed the earth. Even the pharaohs of ancient Egypt took honey pots to the afterlife. But here on earth it has an eternal shelf life; archeologists have found edible honey in the pyramid tombs.

But just how that delicious fluid from the honeycomb becomes part of my breakfast — as I drizzle it over my warm brie toast or spoon it into tea — is something I no longer take for granted.

John Gentzel, Miami native and founder of J & P Apiary certainly doesn’t take his bees for granted. The Homestead resident started beekeeping over 50 years ago in junior high when he recruited his mother as his business partner. And it’s remained a family affair. His daughter Kim now helps him with the business, which manages about 300 of hives in Miami-Dade, each home to about 60 to 100 thousand honeybees. They also sell honey and offer educational presentations at local schools.

Queen bee on the honeycomb at Gentzel's apiary. (Courtesy of J & P Apiary)
Queen bee chilling on her honeycomb at J & P Apiary. (Courtesy of J & P Apiary)

Growing up, Gentzel learned about bees the old-fashioned way. “When I was young, I would sit out there for hours and just by watching you could tell if they needed anything,” he told me over a phone interview.

Bad fortune has stung him, and so have the bees. “I’m immune to the stings. They don’t swell anymore. They still hurt, but you get past the first 100 or 200.”

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew wiped out nearly 300 of his hives, but I could hear the love of bees in his voice, in spite of apiculture’s ups and downs. “They are such amazing little creatures,” he continued. “They fascinate me so. Believe me, I wouldn’t be in this today otherwise. Some years are good, some are bad. It’s farming and I love doing it and it beats staying home and watching TV.”

Like many commercial beekeepers, Gentzel’s apiary leases bees to other farming regions of the country with major fruit crops. The rent-a-bee business is a common practice, and Florida’s bees make California almonds possible through a most intricate web of animal and human collaboration.

California grows 80% of the global supply of almonds in over 1 million acres of planted fields. The trees depend exclusively on bees for pollination. Almond growers practice monoculture, which means nothing else grows in their fields and when the trees stop blooming after a few weeks, the bees run out of nectar and pollen as food supply. The busy bees are then trucked to other parts of the country to pollinate many kinds of fruiting plants, including apples, blueberries, raspberries, cherries, and more.

As a major pollinator, bees are key to agriculture practices, but the stress of travel isn’t particularly good for their health. Neither are poor nutrition, pesticides, fungicides, and diseases — all of which are suspects in Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, CCD is a syndrome defined as “a dead colony with no adult bees or dead bee bodies but with a live queen and usually honey and immature bees still present.”

And it’s been having a devastating affect. Since the 1940s, the number of managed beehives has declined about 50%. Honeybees are critical to the food chain, directly or indirectly responsible for one-third of what we eat. Less bees means lower yields, which drives up the cost of food.

Hobbyists to the rescue

Commercial beekeepers, crop growers, agricultural research scientists, and government agencies have a big problem to tackle in CCD. But the average Miami homeowner can help Mother Nature by becoming a backyard beekeeper.

The majority of Florida’s nearly 5,000 registered beekeepers are hobbyists. In the last 5 years, beekeeping has become popular, thanks in part to increased public awareness of bee population declines.

You are what you eat, and bees help make what you eat. Ultimately, healthier eating habits go hand in hand with environmental stewardship. The rising popularity of farm-to-table restaurants and health foods on store shelves supports sustainable and local agricultural practices.

If you’ve never thought of yourself as a farmer, think again. Here in South Florida, you can turn even a small yard into a garden haven.

Al Salopek’s business card reads “I’m Passionate About Bees,” but after seeing him present at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden’s annual The Buzz on Honeybees event, I’d say that’s quite an understatement. Based in Palm Beach County, the former restaurateur turned hive removal specialist and beekeeping evangelist started working with bees after the stock market crash left him reeling with depression. “Bees saved my life,” he told us during a lecture at Fairchild.

Salopek speaks with wild enthusiasm about his Zen of beekeeping. “It’s like yoga,” he claimed. Bees are masters of detecting the invisible chemical trails of pheromones and can sense fear in humans. Handling bees forces him to relax and so the practice of beekeeping becomes therapeutic.

Bees are also great teachers.

Bee on a flower (Courtesy of Al Salopek)
Bee on a flower (Courtesy of Al Salopek)

“Bees have taught me more about life than anything else,” he said. “Each bee is part of a super organism made of different parts that teaches us so much about living in community.”

He compares bees to the cells in our bodies that make up the whole organism. “The whole unit must work together in order to survive.”

Salopek, who created the non-profit Florida Backyard Beekeepers Association in January 2015, says that in the last 5 years, registered hobbyists have grown by about 50%, with an average of two beekeepers registering each day. All beekeepers, even hobbyists, must register with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for yearly inspections of hive health.

From hobby to business

Talk to beekeepers, commercial or hobbyists, and they all seem to have a cult-like reverence for the insect that brings such goodness to the table. They smile, their eyes light up, and they gush over their beloved bees. Many run a family business spanning two or more generations. Some do it as a second job.

One thing they all have in common — they seem to be truly in tune with the environment.

Miami’s Maureen Russell started with butterfly gardening, turning her backyard into a certified Natural Habitat before graduating to beekeeping. She now makes handcrafted beauty products at home with honey and beeswax from her own hives. The former nurse and current pharmaceutical representative operates a cottage industry as Reeny’s Butterflies, Blooms & Bees. At home, she makes eco-friendly scented soaps, lotions, candles, sunscreen and other products inspired by her garden.

Keez Beez, which operates about 450 to 500 hives throughout the Florida Keys and produces 180 pounds of honey per year, started small when wife Isabella Ballestas gave her husband retired ship captain John David one hive for his birthday 6 years ago. Today, the operation helps pollinate native trees such as mangrove and sea grape, which are a critical part of Florida’s seaside habitats. Their raw honey is certified kosher and organic.

Bee happy

Bees in their honeycomb in an educational display frame. (Courtesy of Maria de los Angeles)
Bees in their honeycomb in an educational display frame. (Courtesy of Maria de los Angeles)

So what have honeybees taught me about Miami? That you’d be crazy to not take advantage of our lush, tropical landscape and year-round warm weather for greener and healthier living. Living off the land isn’t some old-fashioned tale in a place where you can find fresh avocados and mangoes on the sidewalk.

I also learned that I’m probably more of a Redland farm girl at heart than a Brickell condo canyon socialite. I’d happily make my salad from bee-pollinated fruit in my backyard rather than find it neatly packaged at Publix.

And I’ll never eat another almond without thanking my buzzing, hard-working buddies from Miami’s hives.