Florida beekeepers rally community in Hurricane Ian recovery efforts

The destruction caused by Hurricane Ian at Councell Farms in Cape Coral. (Courtesy of B Keith Councell)

B. Keith Councell is a beekeeper without his bees – 2,800 of them spread across his farms in Arcadia, Cape Coral, Pine Island and Fort Myers.

His honey bees were among the 400,000 hives in Florida that were in the path of Hurricane Ian in September.

Ian decimated a total of 100,000 hives, which toppled and drowned in 12-foot storm surges eight hives high. The state’s surviving bees starved to death from the destruction of foliage, the bees’ source of energy and protein.

Deprived of bees, food and equipment, the beekeepers found relief in themselves.

“No one complained. Nobody said anything bad,” said John Coldwell, president of the Florida State Beekeepers Association.

Men, women and children, he said, had just gone back to work.

To keep their remaining bees alive, beekeepers must supplement the loss of plant nectar and pollen.

The association worked with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) to solicit charitable assistance, said Amy Vu, IFAS program expansion agent in beekeeping.

Greater Good Charities, an international non-profit organization, distributed 508,800 pounds of syrup and 96,900 pounds of pollen to over 100 beekeepers at events in Arcadia, Fort Myers and Winter Haven.

National beekeeping supplier Mann Lake Bee Ag & Supply coordinated the logistics, providing syrup, equipment and the distribution location for the fundraiser in Winter Haven.

“Everyone has put business on hold and put compassion first,” Coldwell said.

Mann Lake’s competitors, Dadant & Sons Inc. and South Florida Bee Supplies LLC, also donated products in Winter Haven, according to Coldwell.

The recovery effort brought together beekeepers who hadn’t spoken to each other in decades.

Councell, 49, said he received calls from beekeepers he knew in his 20s who he hadn’t spoken to in 20 years.

“We’ve seen a resumption of commercial beekeeping that Florida hasn’t seen in 25, probably 30 years,” Coldwell said.

“And the camaraderie and the conversation was just — it was spectacular.”

Eli Mendes, a beekeeper and owner of Tropic Trailer, told Central Florida Ag News he’s lost 500 of his 5,000 hives.

That didn’t stop him from shutting down his shop to haul materials and provide the distribution site for the Fort Myers fundraiser, Coldwell said.

Mendes reached out to beekeepers like Michael and Tammy Sadler, co-owners of Bee-Haven Honey Farm Inc., to assess their needs and coordinate assistance.

“It was a grassroots effort that started with a phone call,” Tammy Sadler said.

The Sadlers received 12,000 pounds of liquid feed and 2,000 pounds of pollen at the fundraiser in Winter Haven. They have since used up the liquid feed and applied the pollen to 1,400 of their hives.

The couple lost 140 hives and 80 barrels of honey to the hurricane — $120,000 in losses from honey sales alone.

Bees usually produce excess honey from September to December, boosting their population thanks to the abundant nectar of the Brazilian pepper tree.

Hurricane Ian hit during the shrub’s flowering period.

Flooded forage and crushed bee colonies will force beekeepers to catch up for next year.

“Our total [of bees] The start of next year will be down,” explained Michael Sadler. “Everyone will start the year late.”

For Councell, the year doesn’t start at all.

He predicted he would suffer a gap of two to three years before his business returned to its pre-Ian state.

“I haven’t made a single dollar since the hurricane,” he said.

Councell’s biggest challenge isn’t the lack of pollen — it’s his lack of pollinators.

The number of bees he lost prevented him from doing his typical pollination this year, he said.

“Some of us just need bees.”

Only three beehives, two telephone poles and a wall remain in one of his shops on Pine Island.

The storm has wrecked his extraction equipment. It ripped half the clapboard off the roof of his home, rain seeped inside, forcing his family to move into an RV.

But he has his daughters and his health, he said. And his truck.

When two beekeepers at the Arcadia fundraiser were unable to secure syrup, Councell drove it to them.

“For me, it was better to help some of my friends who have bees to get the supplies they needed.”

If you want to support recovering beekeepers, you can donate to them GoFundMe created by the Florida State Beekeepers Association.

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