What’s the Buzz on these Bees?

Published 5:29 pm Tuesday, March 6, 2018

More than 2000 hives of Georgia/Florida bees were shipped to the Fresno, California area in late January to help pollinate over one million acres of almond trees in the San Joaquin Valley.

Local beekeeper, Steve O’Neal, has been participating in the project for four years, beginning in 2015 with one semi truckload. In 2016 he increased it to two semi-loads, three in 2017 and this year he sent four and one half semi -loads of bees to California.

Special bee hauling companies with bee specific trailers are used, as they require certain levels of care. They drive only during the day and park at night. There is open netting around the hives so that they can obtain air.

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Although he has been shipping bees for four years, he has never gone to California to check on them until this year. He told of the strict regulations governing the shipment of bees into California. There cannot be any sand or ants in the shipments and the truck beds are washed down and cleaned, as are the pallets. O’Neal says you get three chances to get the load washed and cleaned to the satisfaction of the California regulators. If it is rejected the third time it is your responsibility to pay the freight back home. It can be quite costly to ship them, about $7,000 one way.

O’Neal’s bee business is centered in north Florida where he is helped by his two sons, Kurtis and Cameron, as well as a nephew, Ben.

Beekeeping does, indeed, seem to be a family affair, as there have been O’Neal bee keepers since the 1800’s. Steve is the fourth generation, following his great –grandfather, grandfather and father, all of whom raised bees. He began his bee adventure while still a teenager in high school, but didn’t begin to become a serious beekeeper until 1982, when he started his now thriving business with two colonies of bees.

“I just love keeping bees,” says O’Neal. He is retired from 27 years as a fire fighter in Quincy, Fla., and during those 27 years he kept bees on the side.

Apparently the Georgia/Florida bees have done their job in California, as the first load of them is scheduled to return this Saturday a.m. “We will go through and check on them, administering antibiotics if necessary, before we distribute them around to various farms where they help pollinate fruits and vegetables,” he explains.

He often works out a bartering system with the farmers, giving them honey in return for letting his bees work their lands. “There are a lot of generous local farmers who let me place bees on their lands,” he adds.

Although the O’Neals sell a great deal of honey, they must hold back a sufficient amount to feed the bees during winter when they are not producing honey.

A big problem for beekeepers is the influx of the deadly varroa mite, a parasitic mite native to the Asian honeybee. It attacks the honeybees and is the species most responsible for the vast majority of behive deaths. “I have lost some colonies to the mite, and if we find them we have to treat inside the colony, using several EPA approved treatments.”

While the invasion of mites is a big problem, the biggest of all for the O’Neals in north Florida is the black bear. “For some reason there is something that occurs around the first week of April, that triggers an attraction from the bears to the baby bees in the hives. They tear up the hives to get to the baby bees,” he explains. As the bears cannot be killed, he uses electric wiring on the hives, powered by 12 volt batteries. “It gives them enough of a jolt that they leave the hive, but it doesn’t really hurt them. It is just a constant battle,“ he explains.

Bees often feed on wildflowers and the different flavors are produced by the nectar of the different varieties. The best selling honey produced by O’Neal’s bees is Tupelo honey, derived from the nectar of the flowering Tupelo trees that grow mainly in the Apalachicola River basin. It is surprising to learn bees can even make honey from feeding on cotton. O’Neal describes it as having a strong flavor, and is often used for winter feed of bees.

He reiterated how much he loves bees. ‘I just love looking at them, and even the smell of a semi load of bees is exciting to me.”

He said the most common question he receives is, “Do the bees sting?” to which he replies, “Only on the days that end in “Y”.