Hur­ri­cane Michael could sour Florida’s tu­pelo honey har­vest

The Bradenton Herald (Sunday) - - Local - BY JEN­NIFER KAY

Hur­ri­cane Michael top­pled bee­hives and stripped flow­er­ing plants across Florida’s Pan­han­dle, threat­en­ing tu­pelo honey pro­duc­tion in a tiny com­mu­nity that is the pri­mary source of the sweet del­i­cacy.

Tanker trucks of corn syrup and tens of thou­sands of pounds of syn­thetic pollen are be­ing rushed to bee­keep­ers from the Gulf of Mex­ico to the Ge­or­gia state line to feed sur­viv­ing bee colonies that also pol­li­nate crops such as wa­ter­mel­ons, can­taloupes and blue­ber­ries.

“Just feed­ing my bees is the big­gest con­cern,” said Gary Ad­ki­son, a We­wahitchka bee­keeper. “There’s no nec­tar.”

Ad­ki­son, who named his Blue–Eyed Girl Honey for his grand­daugh­ter, lost about 50 of his 150 hives to the storm, each con­tain­ing 30,000 to 40,000 bees. Un­like other bee- keep­ers who move their colonies to pol­li­nate crops as far away as Cal­i­for­nia, Ad­ki­son keeps his hives lo­cal year-round.

“To be hon­est, I didn’t ex­pect this much dam­age,” he said.

About 500 bee­keep­ers are reg­is­tered in Florida’s Pan­han­dle, with more than 1.2 bil­lion bees in their colonies, ac­cord­ing to the Univer­sity of Florida’s In­sti­tute of Food and Agri­cul­tural Sci­ences.

They range from hob­by­ists to mom-and-pop busi­nesses to large com­mer­cial op­er­a­tions.

Although Florida also pro­duces honey from or­ange blos­soms, gall­ber­ries and wild­flow­ers, the honey from white tu­pelo gum trees ranks high­est in price and fla­vor.

The trees grow in re­mote swamps in north­west­ern Florida and south­ern Ge­or­gia, but are most pro­fuse along the Apalachicola River in Florida’s Gulf County. The heart of tu­pelo honey pro­duc­tion is We­wahitchka, a one-stop­light town about 15 miles in­land from where Michael made land­fall Oct. 10 with 155-mph winds.

“Ev­ery­body has a jar of it on their kitchen ta­ble,” Ad­ki­son said.

Now, he added, ev­ery­one wor­ries how Michael would af­fect the star of the an­nual Tu­pelo Honey Fes­ti­val, which draws thou­sands of peo­ple in May.

Van Mor­ri­son’s song about a girl “as sweet as tu­pelo honey, just like honey from the bee” cap­tures its dis­tinct na­ture: True tu­pelo honey is bot­tled more or less straight from the hive, with­out heat­ing or blend­ing with other hon­eys. It does not crys­tal­ize, re­main­ing a smooth, golden liq­uid.

“It’s got a fruity, flo­ral burst of fla­vor,” said Brian Ber­ton­neau, owner of We­wahitchka-based Smi­ley Honey. “It’s just a happy dance in your mouth.”

The trees bloom for only three weeks start­ing in mid-April.

Bee­keep­ers and busi­ness own­ers like Ber­ton­neau, whose op­er­a­tions shut down with­out elec­tric­ity or in­ter­net ac­cess af­ter Michael, are anx­ious to find out what kind of spring har­vest they should ex­pect.

“The blos­soms are so frag­ile, they’re like lit­tle snow­balls,” Ber­ton­neau said. “A heavy wind or rain will knock them off the tree.”

Michael’s toll on tu­pe­los is as yet un­clear be­cause the trees are dif­fi­cult to reach ex­cept by barge and con­sid­er­able de­bris re­mains to be cleared.

David Wester­velt, a state api­ary in­spec­tion su­per­vi­sor, said dam­aged trees might take two or three years to start bloom­ing again.

“We haven’t ever had a storm hit like that, so we don’t re­ally know,” Wester­velt said.

The 2018 har­vest was es­pe­cially rich in fla­vor, though not par­tic­u­larly high in vol­ume, bee­keep­ers said. Wester­velt es­ti­mated not quite 1 mil­lion pounds of tu­pelo honey were pro­duced last year, sell­ing for about $6 and up per pound.

Two days af­ter Michael made land­fall, an As­so­ci­ated Press pho­tog­ra­pher found Ben Lanier tend­ing to his hives in spite of fallen trees and other de­bris in We­wahitchka bee yards kept in his fam­ily for three gen­er­a­tions.

L.L. Lanier and Sons Tu­pelo Honey has been in busi­ness since the 1890s, and in a Face­book post Thurs­day, Lanier and his wife said the hur­ri­cane would not shut them down.

“The bees were all over the place and our house is al­most a to­tal loss,” the post said. “It has been very hard to get gen­er­a­tors and gas, but one way or the other we will get back in busi­ness.”

Ad­ki­son said all he could do was fo­cus on feed­ing his sur­viv­ing bees.

“We are small-time,” he said. “If we have a bad year, I’ll just have to take care of my bees and wait un­til the next year.”

CHRIS O’MEARA AP

Justin Sours car­ries a bee­hive af­ter a tree was knocked down by winds from Hur­ri­cane Michael in We­wahitchka, Fla., ear­lier this month. Michael’s dev­as­ta­tion could threaten the tu­pelo honey pro­duc­tion in the tiny com­mu­nity that is the main source of the sweet del­i­cacy.

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