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Honeycomb hideout!

DIY beehives make Orlando backyards sweeter

Photo: Ralph Giunta, License: N/A

Ralph Giunta

Willingham, who lives in Winter Park, is one of a growing number of urban apiarists – people who have taken to beekeeping in densely populated areas and turned it into a hobby. Or, as in Willingham's case, a viable business. Like backyard poultry keeping, backyard beekeeping has grown in popularity with the public's interest in locally sourced, natural foods, and some cities are making it easier for residents to get in on the trend. Though it's not legal to keep bees in Los Angeles, at the moment, it is in New York City: In 2010 New York made it legal to keep non-aggressive honeybees on rooftops and in community gardens to pollinate plants and earn income by selling honey. Even the White House has a beehive, introduced by First Lady Michelle Obama last year.

While approximately 80 percent of the bees in the United States are kept bees, it's not clear exactly how many urban beekeepers are setting up hives in their backyards. Willingham says the public's interest in bees can help keep bee populations healthy and thriving. Each new hive, he says, promotes a more sustainable future for the fragile honeybee, because they help promote diversity among the species. Willingham, for instance, imports his bees and mixes his hives in an attempt to make them stronger and more capable of fighting off diseases that could cause such things as colony-collapse disorder.

"Einstein said if the bees were to die, man would have four years to live," Willingham says. "Visualizing the foods that come from bees – people say one out of every three bites – it gives you a real visual idea of how we depend on them. But it's really 33 percent; a third of our food supply, comes from sources that are dependent on bee pollination."

Just as bees are more than just another insect – they do, after all, provide the vital service of pollinating crops used for food – honey is more than just another sweetener. It's also a source of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and as a result, it's commonly used in home remedies for treating allergies, soothing coughs and softening the skin. The flavor of honey is influenced by the nectar sources bees have to choose from (some of Willingham's local favorites include orange blossom, palmetter, gallberry and wildflower), but honey's nutritional value, Willingham says, is influenced by how it's handled and processed. Commercial honey farms that deal with vast quantities of honey heat their product so they can quickly filter it and remove impurities. But Willingham says the best honeys (and those with the most nutritional benefits) are the simplest: raw and sold as fresh as possible.

"Raw honey is just extracted and not heated or filtered," he says. "The heating process affects the flavor a lot. When we do the honey, we just basically let it settle in a tank, and all of the wax floats to the top, and any sediment will usually go right to the bottom, so we're able to draw out the honey without ever filtering it or heating it, and that gives it a better flavor."

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