top of page
  • Tara Crutchfield

The Buzz About Beekeeping

DEERINGER HONEY FARM


In addition to a population of wild bees, the state of Florida is host to some 650-700,000 commercial bee colonies with another 10-15,000 hobby hives. Polk County is home to around 11,000 commercial colonies with several multigenerational apiculture (the technical term for beekeeping) families. One such Winter Haven family is the Deeringers. 


Ashlyn Deeringer’s grandfather Wesley Parmerter got into beekeeping after World War II. “During World War II, there was a lot of rationing, so people kept bees in their backyard for sweetener because a lot of sugar was going overseas to the military,” explained Ashlyn’s husband, Jason Deeringer. Her grandfather went on to become a migratory beekeeper and state bee inspector traveling between New York and Florida. Her father followed in his footsteps, beekeeping since the 70s, and her brother did it for some 15 years.


Ashlyn and Jason’s love story is a sweet honeybee happenstance. They knew each other in high school, after which Jason entered the military and Ashlyn went to college. Following his service, in 2009, Jason got into the bee removal service, working with a company that specializes in removing stinging insects. He also at the time, received a few hives as a gift. Those few hives turned into 100 by the time he reconnected with Ashlyn. The pair laughed as they recalled Ashlyn’s dad thinking Jason might be a beekeeping spy looking to do some apiary espionage. He started two businesses, Bee Serious and Deeringer Honey Farm, in 2013. Ashlyn worked in the Visitor Services department of Visit Central Florida for ten years before joining Jason in his apiculture endeavors.


Jason eventually bought his own truck and loader, and his beekeeping business grew to outpace the removal. The couple now has nearly 2,000 colonies, offering services from commercial pollination and honey production to retailing bees. The Deeringers are in the process of purchasing Ashlyn’s father’s business as he looks to retire. “We’ll have a home base in Davenport once we finish this acquisition,” Ashlyn said. 


We stood in a Dundee field on a windy December morning as Jason lit a smoker and talked about his favorite subject – bees. “Bees are pheromone based, smell based. They have an alarm smell,” he said. “If you open a hive without smoking them, the alarm spreads to everybody, and everybody gets angry. If you smoke them first, the alarm spreads very slowly and minimally.”


Beekeeping offers quite a few avenues for revenue. In addition to selling queens and wholesaling honey by the drum, the Deeringers sell wax. Wholesale honey can go for around $2.50-2.75 per pound, with wax, a natural byproduct of what they do, going for around $5 a pound.


One of their more lucrative streams of revenue comes from commercial pollination. Farmers will pay to have honeybees pollinate their crops, from strawberries and blueberries to melons and cucumbers. “We can drop bees off, and those bees will increase crop production by 20 percent,” said Jason. The Deeringers ship bees as far as California to pollinate almonds and down the eastern seaboard for blueberries and cranberries.



As bees are thermoregulators, shipping them can be quite timely and tedious. There are roughly 50-90,000 bees per colony and an average of 400 colonies on a semi. “It’s high risk but also high reward,” Jason noted.


“In central Florida, agriculture is disappearing fairly quickly. Our forage, what we produce honey crops on, is disappearing faster than the industry can create new things for new revenue,” he said, calling migratory commercial pollination “our saving grace.”


“If we didn’t have these commercial pollination contracts, we really couldn’t exist as an industry for much longer in central Florida specifically because of development. We’re losing so much of our forage – our orange blossom, palmetto, scrubland – to development.” Another threat to apiculture is the introduction of pests and diseases, such as the Asian mite. These pests mean beekeepers like the Deeringers must continually monitor and treat the hives to keep the threshold low and the colony thriving. According to Jason, if the mite count gets too high, they can transmit viruses that kill off the bees. “It’s made a better industry in the sense that we are beekeepers and not just bee setters,” he said. “But it’s a pain when we have to treat a colony three times in a row, and we have 2,000 colonies.”


Through years of experience, the Deeringers have gained a sense for hive health. “You can read all the books, but until you’re doing it for years and having failures and successes, you know what’s working, what’s not. It’s those years of experience that can get you to that point of reading the colony,” Ashlyn said.


Deeringer Honey Farm produces about five crops a year. “Our honey yields in Florida are pretty interesting,” Jason said. “An average colony can make between 50 and 90 pounds of honey per crop depending on the year, depending on the weather, and a lot of different variables.”



Northern states, the midwest, and Canada, can produce hundreds of pounds of honey per colony. “It’s harder here to make honey than in other parts of the country,” Jason said. “[But] we have more crops that produce honey than in other parts of the United States.” Wherein the midwest produces mainly clover honey, central Florida has a variety from orange blossom and palmetto to Brazilian pepper, gallberry, and Tupelo.


“The beekeeping end is very rewarding. You can see your work, you can see the effort that you put into the colonies – the treatments, the feeding, the maintaining properly – in the honey you produce,” said Jason. “It can go from one box to several boxes of honey in just 10, 15, 20 days. It’s cool to see. The problem with honey production is it’s so variable. [...] It’s kind of like gambling. You get addicted to the chase of that $100K honey crop.”


That variability is precisely why the Deeringers have diversified their business. They’ve recently ramped up their direct-to-consumer honey production and look to do retail in the future. Folks can purchase local honey at their honor-system-based honey stand at 632 Ave. T SE, Winter Haven. “Don’t be afraid to buy honey from a big box retailer,” Jason concluded. “Just check the source of origin. At least buy from a company that uses U.S. honey.”


THE MAYOR’S APICULTURE ADDICTION


Not all beekeepers are shipping hundreds of thousands of bees across the country for commercial pollination. Some do it for the love of apiculture. When he isn’t conducting his mayoral duties or serving as the managing director and senior vice president of investments for Raymond James, one might catch Winter Haven Mayor Brad Dantzler tending to the three beehives on his property.


About seven years ago, Dantzler attended a wedding in Atlanta. A friend took him out to tour his hives in full beekeeping regalia. “I just fell in love with it,” the mayor said. “There are a lot of ways to get started, but the simplest way is to buy what’s called a ‘nuc,’” Dantzler said. The term “nuc” is short for “nucleus colony.” It’s a small hive, including a colony of bees. According to Dantzler, each hive has about 60-80K bees. He currently has three hives. It used to be four, but one of his hives’ absconded,’ which means the entire hive, including the queen, left.


“Once your hives get very healthy and big like mine are, I can take a couple of frames out and put them in a separate box and encourage them to make another queen and start a hive,” he said. That’s known as ‘splitting the hive.’


The mayor has two colonies of European bees, and a third he suspects are Russian. He notes that they are more aggressive but produce the best honey. “The queen sets the whole mood of the hive. If the queen is nice and docile, then the bees don’t bother you at all. But if the queen is mean, the bees will be mean because [almost 99%] of the bees are female.”


Dantzler completes a hive inspection every other week in which he uses hive tools to ‘crack the hive’ and pulls out each of the 11 frames per box. He’s looking to keep out pests and check on the hive’s overall well-being. If the hive is healthy, he leaves it undisturbed. “My theory is to not disturb them as much as possible unless they’re having a problem.”


The bottom box of the hive is where the bees live. As they mature, beekeepers add boxes on top of them called honey supers. Twice a year, when the supers are full, Dantzler harvests his honey crop, known as ‘stealing the honey.’ Each hive box will produce some 50 pounds of honey. “My Russian bees, I call them my rockstars. They produce like crazy.” His friend and Theatre Winter Haven Producing Director Dan Chesnicka often helps him harvest the honey, which takes about 4 to 5 hours. “You want to leave them honey to make it through the winter because there are not nearly as many flowers,” he said. “When they don’t have pollen to eat, they start eating their own honey. That’s why they store it up.” 


Honey differs from hive to hive based on which plants the bees pollinate. Dark palmetto honey is the mayor’s favorite, but he may get orange blossom, clover, Brazilian pepper, or ragweed throughout the year. “It’s kind of like wine,” he said of the variety in honey. Dantlzer labels his honey ‘Mayor’s Select,’ gives it away, and makes his own honey candy.


With his puppy Dash in tow, Mayor Dantzler showed us around his yard. He pointed out purple porter weed and azaleas, shrimp plants and gardenias, fire bush and white plumbago, pipevine, and beauty berries. “Everything is geared for my bees and butterflies.”


“Every little apiary takes on its own personality,” Dantlzer said. His is adorned with little signs and knick-knacks, including a bee fairy. He finds the work to be cathartic. “Sometimes, when I’ve had a rough day, I’ll come and just sit on that bench and hang out here with them.”


Mayor Dantzler recommends the Ridge Beekeepers Association as a resource for those interested in apiculture. “The bee community is very supportive of each other,” he said. According to the beekeeper club, “Our members have a wealth of knowledge about beekeeping. Members include hobbyists, sideline and commercial beekeepers, honey producers, and queen producers. We have members from Polk County and the surrounding counties such as Lake, Highlands, and Hardee.” The Ridge Beekeepers Association meets on the third Monday of the month at 7 pm, followed by a field/workday the next Saturday. Check their website, www.ridgebeekeepers.com, each month for the meeting location.


Photography by Amy Sexson

Comments


bottom of page