Honey flows, money slows
14 01 2001 - email@example.com - http://www.herald.com
It was chilly in the honey house last week, too chilly to cut the wax caps off the combs, too chilly to separate the sweet and sensitive syrup from its beehive home.
But beekeeper Steve Corniffe stayed busy, repairing hive boxes and building new ones, doing anything to prepare for the delicious and fleeting moment his livelihood depends on: the honey flow.
In the glorious weeks when blooms erupt on the vines of squash, cucumbers and nearly anything else in South Florida, the thousands of buzzing soldiers he commands are rapturously obedient, feasting in the fields and -- most important to Corniffe and his boss at Del Signore Apiaries near Homestead -- churning out honey and sweet profit.
But while timing has always been crucial in the bee business, it is no longer the only factor in whether a Florida beekeeper will get by.
The once-predictable process of mining honey beneath year-round sunshine has become complicated, a laborious battle against overseas competition and invading insects and disease that thrive in tropical climates and can reduce an efficient hive to useless soup.
Beekeepers like Corniffe, who works in South Florida because the climate creates a nearly endless cycle of honey flows, earn less now while working harder and spending increasingly more time protecting and nurturing their hives.
If the future of Florida honey were all that was at stake, the beekeepers' story would be bittersweet enough, but bees are also an essential link in the food chain that farmers depend on to pollinate crops and increase their harvest. Beekeepers see themselves as indispensable, working for the good of agriculture, for the good of everyone.
``If the bees go,'' Corniffe said, ``we could be next.''
Nearby at Brooks Tropicals, Vice President of Agricultural Operations Mike Hunt said, bees generate ``substantially better production'' from his 2,000 acres of avocados.
But, he added, ``More and more our local beekeepers are downsizing or disappearing. We're having to search bees out from out of town.''
Northern beekeepers truck their hives to Florida every winter, for the honey flows and to rejuvenate bees ``stressed'' from winter weather and exhausting pollination contracts on farms in New England and the Midwest.
But the work of Florida beekeepers regularly ranks the state among the top honey producers in the country, rich with varieties: orange blossom, palmetto and the divine tupelo honey. Made only in the tupelo swamps of the Panhandle, it was the star of the movie Ulee's Gold in 1997.
Inside the cluttered honey house off Krome Avenue, bees hum near Corniffe's nose as he leads a visitor through the building, but he never ducks. He never swats.
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