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YOU CATCH MORE HONEY WITH AN EXTENSION AGENT by donovan baltich

It’s easy to tell the difference between a person approaching a beehive for the first time and a master beekeeper. The beginner wears all the protective gear: boots, gloves, jacket and veil, while the master beekeeper usually wears the veil alone.

That’s not to say just anyone should approach a beehive without protective garb. Master beekeepers have other tools in their belt, including smokers, a built-up tolerance to venom and more than anything — their experience, which helps them remain calm in stressful situations.

The Beekeeping Education Series in Alachua County helps residents from all over North Central Florida gain that indispensable experience.

DR. TATIANA SANCHEZ

The series is hosted by Tatiana Sanchez, D.P.M. — that’s Doctor of Plant Medicine. Her background is interesting for two reasons: first, it demonstrates just how integral bees are to food production and second, that extension agents at the University of Florida Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), like Sanchez, are experts in a wide variety of subjects.

Sanchez fields questions primarily from commercial growers investigating issues with their fruit, vegetable and ornamental crops. When the occasion calls for it, she makes visits to farms to consult and collect specimens for analysis. Questions about pollinators regularly come in, but after a particularly high volume of inquiries, the Alachua County IFAS Extension Office established the Beekeeping Education Series.

FALL

The first class introduces participants to the Honey Bee Research and Extension Laboratory, or Honey Bee Lab for short, where the entire series takes place. Along the southwest edge of the UF campus, the laboratory is tucked away surprisingly close to the Curtis M. Phillips Center for Performing Arts.

A master beekeeper shows participants the inside of a hive's frame.

Each class is limited to 40 participants, and there is never an empty seat. These participants want to get a head start, as fall is the time to order bees for the spring. The first meeting covers the basics: principles of honey bee biology, equipment, how to use a smoker, rules to start an apiary, or a collection of hives, and more.

Plants need water, soil, and sunlight to grow, but without anyone to pollinate them, many would never fruit. Apis mellifera, or European honey bee, is chief among pollinators. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, just one of these efficient invertebrates can collect and cross pollinate up to 1,200 flowers a day.

WINTER

“Is anyone allergic to bees? If you are, you shouldn’t be here,” Sanchez quips at the beginning of the winter class. The apiary at the Honey Bee Lab is abuzz with activity. For many participants, it will be their first time approaching a honey bee hive. With jackets, boots, gloves and veils donned, they’re about to cozy up to more than 60,000 bees.

The four master beekeepers, who volunteer their time to teach bee education alongside Sanchez and the lab staff, lead a group each to the apiary. They carry with them a metal canister with a fire burning inside, which they use to blow smoke into the hive. The smoke interferes with the bees’ system of communication. Without it, the bees would perceive a threat and would release pheromones to alert the others. Worker bees, all sterile females, would then rush to defend the hive.

To avoid losing their bees, the winter class trains participants to recognize swarming cues and how to make splits to colonies of their choosing properly and timely.

SPRING

In the spring, the amateur beekeepers’ colonies are about to produce their peak level of honey, so they reconvene at the Honey Bee Lab to learn how to extract, bottle and label it.

A manmade hive comprises about a dozen frames, which hold thousands of bees each.

For those hoping to sell their products, they’ve already made a contact that can lead them through the process. As honey is considered an agricultural commodity in the state of Florida, IFAS county extension agent Sanchez is a resource for further guidance on selling bee-based products, including honey, candles and so on.

Larger honey operations must bottle honey in an inspected food facility or establishment, as per Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Division of Food Safety guidelines. However, smaller-scale honey producers can be exempt from such rules under Florida’s cottage food laws by bottling in a home kitchen.

SUMMER

Honey bees provide a much-needed service pollinating farmers’ crops during different times of the year and producing honey in the spring. Some farmers maintain their own apiaries to pollinate their crop, but most of the time they rent bees to come in only when they’re most needed.

With her background in plant health, Sanchez advocates strengthening relationships between beekeepers and commercial growers.

“We have to improve and facilitate the connection between commercial beekeepers and our growers,” she said. “It’s necessary for keeping our colonies healthy and for having good pollination.”

Thought bees may not be in-demand throughout the entire year, they must receive care even in their offseason. The bee education series concludes in the summer to teach the now somewhat-seasoned beekeepers how to prevent various pests and diseases, to explain reasons for queen loss and how to maintain honey bee nutrition.

MORE ABOUT DR. SANCHEZ

Sanchez earned her D.P.M. through UF’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. When UF established the program in 1999, it was the only university to offer just such a program. With the state of Florida’s $7 billion agricultural industry, graduates of the D.P.M. program bring expertise to prevent the spread of plant pathogens and arthropod pests, and they help address nutrient deficiencies in soil.

As a postdoctoral associate at UF, Sanchez’s research had nothing to do with honey bees. She focused on controlling Fusarium-induced wilt of watermelon crop. And as the commercial horticulture extension agent for Alachua County, she continues deploying strategies to protect Florida’s watermelon, and other vegetable crops against diseases, through farm visits, all while continuing to provide the Bee Education Series.

MORE ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Donovan Baltich is a graduate student in the Master's of Science in Management program at the University of Florida's Warrington College of Business.

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