Over the past 20 years, beekeeping in Northwest Florida has become increasingly difficult. Beekeepers, they say, are forced to take even more preventative measures in an ongoing effort to keep local beehives alive.

Beekeeping hobbyist couple Pam and Mike Garrett slowly combed through dozens of super frames — honeycombed panels in a beehive used to store honey — April 5, searching for any signs of invasive varroa mites or small hive beetles.

Over the past 20 years, beekeeping in Northwest Florida has become increasingly difficult. Beekeepers, they say, are forced to take even more preventative measures in an ongoing effort to keep local beehives alive.

According to Pam Garrett, varroa mites can cause entire bee colonies to collapse. 

"The mites are so horrible because they cut a hole in the bees' bodies and feed on the lipid layer and transfer 24 viruses," Pam said.

If left untreated, small hive beetles can also hurt a bee colony, according to the Garretts. The beetles can cause damage to the stored honey and can even force weaker colonies to abandon their hive.

Expert beekeepers in Northwest Florida say just 20 years ago, though, these threats to Florida hives were nonexistent.

Jack Wible, a beekeeper in Navarre who has kept bees since he was a teenager, said he now loses 35 to 50 percent of his hives each year to mites and beetles.

"As a beekeeper, you sort of learn to live with it," Wible said. "But when I was a teenager keeping bees, there were no mites."

 

'A constant battle'

Inside the Garrett's home in Niceville, a honeybee theme — paintings, sculptures and yes, even honey itself — makes it obvious the couple is passionate about beekeeping.

Once per week, the Garretts said they spend about four hours managing each of their six hives, which are about five stacked boxes, or "supers."

For Mike Garrett, he adds even more time than an average beekeeper by taking on a unique approach to hive management. Mike, along with his wife, work to destroy each of the honeybees' attempts to create a new queen to avoid swarming.

Honeybees create a new queen by feeding a larva royal jelly, which converts them into a queen, the Garretts explained. If the bees are successful in creating a queen, half of the hive will swarm with the new queen to start a new colony and leave the old one.

"They are biologically wanting to swarm," Mike said. "It's a constant battle. The more bees you have in the hive, the more honey you have. We're in this as a hobby, but we also want to get as much honey as possible."

Over in Navarre, Wible said he singlehandedly manages 22 hives.

Wible began beekeeping again as an adult after his teenage daughter wanted to start keeping bees, just like Wible did as a teen.

"She's an adult now and doesn't live here anymore," Wible said. "Even though she's a vegan now, she will still partake of dad's honey every once in a while."

Wible said his method of beekeeping, unlike the Garretts, is to allow the hive to perform all of its natural processes.

"I don't manipulate the hive or try to prevent swarming," he said. "You can usually tell when a hive is about to swarm. I have a job where I can go to my residence a couple times a day and look in the trees (the first place a swarm and new queen usually travels to before staring a new hive) if I'm expecting a hive to swarm."

If Wible is able to locate one of his swarms, he said he will use water to "wet" the bees to prevent them from flying, dump them into a 5-gallon bucket, put a lid on the container and relocate them into a new, empty hive.

 

'It's not for everybody'

In addition to dealing with swarming and pests, the Garretts and Wible said beekeeping can be very strenuous.

"Its hard work," Wible said. "The honey supers can weigh anywhere from 50 to 80 pounds depending on the size of the super. If you have full deep supers that are full of honey, that's 80 pounds for every one you lift."

Before choosing to become beekeepers, the Garretts said they attended "bee college" at the University of West Florida to learn about the responsibilities that come with keeping bees and how exactly to get started. 

Wible said if individuals are considering beekeeping, the best thing to do is read about bees and watch plenty of videos.

"It's not for everybody," Wible said. "Those who like it seem to really like it. But it's hard work."