Feel the buzz about beekeeping
CHRISTY SWIFTIn his line of business, Steve Cantu has been stung once or twice. Actually, he's been stung more than a hundred times, but who's counting?
Published: August 22, 2012
Published: August 22, 2012
"It's not for everyone," said the owner of Cantu Apiaries in Zolfo Springs, pulling a frame covered in honeycomb and stinging insects out of its box for inspection. He wasn't wearing any protective gear, but the bees just buzzed around him.
Cantu started the family-owned operation in 1979 along with wife Leslie. Their son, Luke, helps tend the couple thousand colonies, and Leslie's sister Robin Boni works as an executive assistant.
A big part of their income comes from pollination services. With the general decline in the bee population across the United States, more and more farmers are bringing in bees to pollinate their crops and improve yields.
"We go to California for the almonds in February for four weeks. Then we bring (the bees) back to Florida. We go into the citrus for honey production, and we also do crop pollination in the watermelons, cucumbers and blueberries from Polk County south," said Cantu.
By mid-May, Cantu's bees are buzzing around farmers' fields all the way north to Maine and Michigan.
This former Fort Meade phosphate miner moved to Zolfo Springs in 1979 and started beekeeping on the side. No stranger to side businesses in agriculture, Cantu has owned cattle and farmed zucchini. By 1986, the bee business was booming so well, Cantu retired from the mines to care for his bees full time.
And raising bees isn't all that different from raising cattle. Just like with larger animals, Cantu chooses his stock wisely and practices insemination to ensure his bees have desirable qualities such as resistance to mites (a major bee killer) and good hygiene.
This summer, Cantu has decided to rest his bees and work on building up the hives again rather than taking them up north. "We're going back to beekeeping," explained Cantu, who will lose 10-15 percent of his bees during pollination trips and another 10-15 percent to mites and bee viruses.
If behind every good man there is a good woman, behind every successful beekeeper are strong queens.
"An old cow doesn't produce like a 2-year-old heifer. It's a lot of stress on the queens. They have to lay 1,000-2,000 eggs a day to maintain and build up the hive. A young queen can do that, but the old one can't do that anymore," Cantu explained.
In cases like that, they kill off the old queen and introduce a new one. Cantu has several queens-to-be incubating on the property.
Besides offering pollination services, Cantu Apiaries sells local honey in a variety of flavors. The exotic-tasting wildflower honey is recommended for allergy-sufferers who benefit from exposure to many different local pollens. The blueberry honey has a lingering fruity taste; the palmetto honey is bold and earthy; and the sweet orange blossom honey "gives people up north a little sunshine," said Cantu.
The Cantus are also well-versed in honey's healing properties and have designed their own skin care line called Peace River Bees.
"Honey is awesome for soothing and softening skin," said Leslie. The Cantus said that some of their customers are cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy, people with acne and MRSA sufferers.
It's the natural medicinal properties of raw honey that produce the health effects, said Cantu, who added that when honey is heated past 120 degrees and overly processed, many of its healing properties are lost.
Another aspect of the job Cantu enjoys is community outreach, especially to kids. He shares observation hives with local schools, 4-H and FFA groups. " said Cantu, who counts on this younger generation to educate their parents.
He has personally seen bee pollination triple a farm's yields, sometimes more, but farmers need to have the right number of bees and take care to spray their fields at night. Even if they think their products are bee-safe, if sprayed directly on the insects, the sticky substances will suffocate them.
He also hears farmers object that their ancestors farmed just fine without bees, but Cantu said the feral bee colonies that existed back then are gone due to foreign diseases that cause colony collapse.
As for the Africanized insect, Cantu said Florida state practice is to destroy any swarms, so it's very difficult for these more aggressive types of bees to infiltrate the native population of European honeybees.
If he sees a hive getting "mean," the solution is simple: change of management, explained Cantu. There's always a new queen prepared to toe the (bee)line.