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Bruce Ritchie: Beekeepers stung by 2014 veto, try again for research site

Florida’s beekeepers say honey bees play a sweet role in agriculture and the economy but they need help – and state funding – to maintain a healthy population.

The Florida State Beekeepers Association is requesting $3.5 million for an apiary research center at the University of Florida.

Florida is the third largest honey-producing state, with a reported crop value of $22.7 million in 2013, according to the university.

The state has about 3,500 beekeepers now compared to 1,200 a decade ago. But the state’s 400,000 honey-producing bee colonies faces threats including a type of parasite called varroa mites and a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder.

The research center is needed to determine why so many beekeepers are losing colonies, said Tom Nolan, the association’s president and a part-time beekeeper from Bradenton

“We have some very serious problems,” Nolan told the Senate Committee on Agriculture.

“Beekeepers are losing about 30 percent of their colonies every year,” Nolan said. “I’ll ask you if you can think of an industry that can survive starting 30 percent in the hole every year.”

One-third of the nation’s food supply comes from the pollination of honey bees, Nolan said.

“So if we don’t do something we have a real problem on our hands,” Nolan said. “In fact, in China right now, they pollinate with feathers – and they have people out in the fields doing it.”

Last year, the Legislature approved $2.5 million for the proposed research center but the line item was vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott. Scott gave no reason publicly for the veto, which was among dozens of line items receiving the governor’s veto pen.

The Florida State Beekeepers Association also had requested $3.5 million last year for the research center, Nolan said. In June, a Florida TaxWatch report on the proposal said the state would receive a positive return on the investment.

The University of Florida trains future beekeepers as well as conducts research on threats to bees, said Jamie Ellis, a UF associate professor of entomology. The new facility, with 10,000 square feet, would include research and offices and an extension instruction space.

Ellis said there are 2.6 million bee colonies in the nation but 1.6 million of them are brought to California where beekeepers are paid more to pollinate the valuable almond crop there.

Bees are shipped between the two states and they also will be taken to Maine to pollinate blueberries and other states to produce clover honey.

Having more bees in Florida will help crops and reduce food production costs for consumers, he said.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said he’s seen trucks carrying many goods on the interstate highways but not bees. Ellis suggested that it’s just a matter of perspective – and perhaps training.

“When I became an entomologist I discovered bugs I didn’t know were there,” Ellis said. “As a beekeeper, when I travel the states, I see the bee trucks that you don’t – because I’m into seeing them.”

About 450 colonies are loaded onto each tractor-trailer truck with forklifts before they are strapped down and covered with a net for the four days of travel to California.

That’s “not a truck to rear end” in a collision, Galvano said.

“I do suggest avoiding them,” Ellis responded.

Bruce Ritchie (@bruceritchie) covers environment and growth management issues in Tallahassee for Floridapolitics.com. He also is editor of Floridaenvironments.com

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