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Honeycomb hideout!

DIY beehives make Orlando backyards sweeter

Photo: Ralph Giunta, License: N/A

Ralph Giunta

Florida is the only state that requires honey to be 100 percent honey. In other states, producers are allowed to cut their product with water or, worse, corn syrup. In Florida, these mixes must be labeled differently than pure honey – honey syrup, for instance.

Florida is one of the top five honey-producing states in the United States; the honey industry here generates 17 million pounds of the sweet amber liquid each year and earns $13 million annually – and that doesn't include the income earned by small, private beekeeping operations in urban areas, like Willingham's.

Orange County permits people to keep bees within three agricultural zones; in one of those zones, they must be kept at least 100 feet from any property line. Orange County regulations for small urban apiary ventures require keepers to register their hives with the Florida Department of Agriculture and have them inspected annually. Willingham says that inspectors come out to look for contagious diseases that can spread quickly among bees, as well as other threats to bee welfare. For example, Africanized bees, which are more aggressive than typical honeybees, are seen as a threat and may not be kept in Florida.

Willingham says that before he started Dansk Farms, which sells beekeeping supplies as well as honey and other bee products, there weren't many sources for local honey in the Orlando area, so he focused on that. Now he's hoping to grow his business by adding more hives.

"My next goal is to really build up the number of hives that I have so we can continue to expand where we want to," he says. "Really now at this point, I'm a local honey supplier, but I also kind of have to be a honey supplier, because there's enough local demand."

In 2010, an estimated 34 percent of the nation's bees were lost to colony-collapse disorder. Scientists are still unsure what causes the phenomenon – theories point to everything from disease to stress to pesticides – but a somewhat recent theory from last year purports that it's actually a unique combination of a fungus (nosema ceranae) and a virus (insect iridescence virus) that causes worker bees to go crazy and abandon the hive suddenly to die alone.

Willingham has lost his fair share of bees, he says, though he says the Florida weather has actually posed the biggest threat to bees. Hives must be sealed up during the coldest months of the year, and bees go into a dormancy period until spring; the spring cold snaps that have become more common in Florida mean that if keepers unseal their hives too early, the bees wake up, begin reproducing and sometimes die of exposure.

"Last year, when we had that really late cold snap, the bees had already started building up to where they couldn't all fit back into the hive," Willingham says. "So when it got really cold, the ones that were on the front of the hive had just frozen. You'd come out, and they were just all laying on the ground."

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