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NEWS

Honeycomb hideout!

DIY beehives make Orlando backyards sweeter

Photo: Ralph Giunta, License: N/A

Ralph Giunta


If there's anything we can learn from bees, it's that the collapse of the middle class is devastating to an economy.

Just as the U.S. economy has suffered as its middle class has shrunk during the recession, the economy of bees has struggled as the apian version of the middle class – worker bees – has been decimated by outside forces.

In 2006, a mysterious disease called colony-collapse disorder struck beehives around the world, causing worker bees, which collect pollen to feed the hive and help it grow (and pollinate plants in the process), to die off in record numbers.

That same year, Joe Willingham – a middle-class victim of the human economic recession – found himself at the confluence of these human and insect declines. He had been laid off from his job working security at Universal Studios, and he was relying on freelance web-design projects to get by. Most of his days were spent indoors, attached to his laptop, so he liked to take frequent breaks to step outside into his yard, where the wildflowers buzzed with honeybees. He says he found himself watching the bees closely, and their habits intrigued him, so he started reading up on them. He thought about keeping them and wondered whether he could somehow catch a few of them and set up a hive of his own.

Willingham learned that catching bees wasn't a practical plan – most beekeepers purchase the insects from suppliers – and after a visit to a commercial bee apiary, he ordered his first package of bees. He established his hive, and it wasn't long before he found himself eager to start more.

Although colony-collapse disorder was ravaging hives up and down the East Coast, he immersed himself in the art of beekeeping.

"I started really in the thick of the difficulties," says the 37-year-old Willingham, who now owns Dansk Farms apiary, which currently runs 30 beehives in Central Florida. "Some people say that I'm the type of person that just likes a challenge. I didn't plan it like that, though. That's just the way it worked out. I developed this interest in bees right when things became bad."

Despite the challenges (facing both humans and bees trying to make a go of it), Willingham found a niche: He discovered that there weren't many local honey producers serving the Orlando area, and that the bees could use a little help to sustain healthy populations. Willingham's hobby quickly turned into a full-time job.

These days, he's known at local farmers markets as "the honey guy," and it would probably surprise those who buy his honeys – raw and unfiltered, sold in glass jars – to know that this career started out as a fluke.

He now manages between 20 to 50 hives at any given time located in Cocoa, Winter Park and Winter Garden, each of which houses between 40,000 and 50,000 bees. They generate thousands of pounds of honey each year, which he sells at the Winter Park and Audubon Park farmers markets and Eat More Produce in Winter Park. Local restaurants, including The Ravenous Pig, Highland Manor and Infusion Tea, use his honeys to sweeten their dishes.

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