Tom May is a third-generation beekeeper who also happens to be a cellist in the Naples Philharmonic. He grew up helping his family with their bees in Illinois and still returns most summers to lend a hand. In 1999, May established the Naples Honey Company. It is now up to 120 hives, and May’s honey can be found at local farmers markets and stores such as Wynn’s and Lucky’s.
Ron Bender wasn’t born into beekeeping. The electrical engineering retiree discovered it seven years ago and taught himself. His backyard-based NaplesBees Apiary has grown from annual harvests of a few pounds to producing hundreds of pounds every year. Bender loves sharing his beekeeping passion with others on his website as well as in the local beekeepers group he helped found, Bee Boyz and Girlz.
The Basic Equipment
Essentials include a hive box or boxes, a bee suit, a smoker, and a hive tool. These start-up supplies (sans bees) may run you between $300 and $400. While this may be a big bill to swallow, Bender advises that it’s important not to skimp on these items. A good bee suit will offer you better protection, and top-quality brood boxes and frames will withstand the Southwest Florida elements for years to come. Those who want to harvest their honey will also need an extractor. These can be manual, which you crank by hand, or electric, which are more expensive but less physically taxing.
For May, the two best ways to acquire bees is by either purchasing a nuc or buying a full single box. A nuc is the nucleus of a hive and amounts to about half of a hive, with a price tag of roughly $150 to $175. A full box is an entire developed hive that is closer in cost to $200 to $225. Bender’s Bee Boyz and Girlz group also tries to provide free or low-cost hives to interested beekeepers.
The Hive Size
Both May and Bender recommend beginning with two hives. The thought behind this is that if one goes bad, you can take half of the other hive and give it to the ailing one. Putting all of your eggs in one basket can mean a quick demise to your beekeeping dreams.
The Hive Location
“Ideally, a big area where the bees have a space buffer from humans seems to work out the best,” says Bender. “If that space turns out to be in the Golden Gate Estates, then bear access mitigation methods need to be considered. The bears will totally destroy the hives to get at the honey and bee larva, which they consider tasty treats.” He advises new keepers to place the hive where it will have a good amount of sun during the day and allow for an opening where the bees can enter and leave unencumbered. You may also want to consider hive height. Position it so that you won’t put undue stress on your back when examining the hive or harvesting the honey.
Southwest Florida beekeepers have a distinct advantage over those pursuing the hobby in other areas of the country. May’s family in Illinois harvests their honey once or twice in the summer and that’s it. Thanks to our climate, May harvests his five to six times annually. Additionally, each harvest produces a different flavor of honey based on what’s blooming at that time of year (orange blossom, saw palmetto, melaleuca, etc.).
Don’t assume you won’t get stung. “When it’s 85 to 95 degrees and sunny and there’s honey flowing, they’re in heaven,” says May. “But when it’s been dark for two weeks and they’re just in there doing their thing and a giant opens the lid and starts pouring smoke in, they get a little aggravated.” Bender echoes that sentiment. “If you keep bees, you will get stung—so just accept that and move on.”
The Final Word
“People tend to think that beekeeping is just like a birdfeeder that you can watch and refill when needed [but] that’s not accurate,” says May. “You have to think like a bee. If you don’t do something quickly, they will die.”
“Like keeping any animal, learning and paying attention to the signs of problems is important,” adds Bender. “Beekeeping is not a ‘set it and forget it’ hobby. A healthy hive can fight off a lot of the pests, but a weak hive needs the intervention of a beekeeper for help.”