If there weren’t enough variables that went into the production of tupelo, add one that can easily wipe out dozens of colonies in a matter of days.

 

 

Tupelo flowers can be fickle things.

So are the bees that harvest the tupelo pollen and turn it into something magical.

Blooming for only a few weeks, the bees of Gulf County beekeepers have a tight schedule to produce the tupelo honey that is valued all around the world.

The flowers are delicate and can be damaged easily in a rain storm and this year the trees bloomed sporadically throughout the county.

Enter the small hive beetle.

If there weren’t enough variables that went into the production of tupelo, add one that can easily wipe out dozens of colonies in a matter of days.

The small pest has brought the bee business to its knees in the matter of a couple decades, but a local Wewahitchka beekeeper may have discovered a solution to the problem.

The pest

Small hive beetles first occurred in the eastern United States in 1996, and it is believed that they arrived as stowaways on a ship from South Africa.

The tiny pests are natural scavengers that fly into hives to lay their eggs.

The damage to hives is not done by the adult beetle, but their offspring in the larval stage.

Larvae in the hundreds or thousands will feed on anything in their path, all the time distributing yeast that ferments the honey and pollen stored within the hive.

That fermentation leads to a condition known as slime out, where bees, which are very hygienic, stop rearing their brood and flee from the hive completely.

After a week or so in the larval stage, the beetles fall to the ground to pupate and the process begins again.

Problem

“I’ve lost over 200 colonies to the South African hive beetle,” said Jim Rish.

The Rish family name is synonymous with beekeeping.

Jim Rish’s great-grandfather started the family in bee business over 100 years ago, and now Rish’s son, Nathan, is the fifth generation to go after tupelo.

With the Rishs the art of beekeeping is instilled early.

“I was the smoker man at six years old,” the elder Rish said.

Smoke makes the bees docile and allows beekeepers to handle the hive without being swarmed.

The smoke doesn’t prevent all stings, and Rish can still point out the specific spot deep in the lowlands of Gulf County where he first got stung at six years old.

“I didn’t say a damn word,” said Rish.

Rish was stung a second time immediately following the first and his attitude changed a bit.

“Daddy let’s go home,” Rish laughed at the memory from nearly 60 years ago.

Rish has done many things from the Marine Corps to preaching, but he has stuck with beekeeping.

“I’ve got a master’s degree but this is what I do. It’s good, honest, outdoor work so I do it,” Rish said.

But business is getting harder and harder for Rish.

“We’ve (beekeepers) had a lot of hardships that are above and beyond the usual,” said Rish.

From the beetle, to bee mites, and the fickle Tupelo tree, Rish has seen them all.

According to Rish, the tupelo harvest has become less and less stable.

“In the past you could plan on it being here.” Rish said. “Then it got to where one out of four years was bad. Now it’s the other way around.”

Nathan Rish, who recently graduated from the University of Florida, agreed with his father.

“We haven’t had a good year since 2009,” the younger Rish said.

“A lot of people have thrown their hands up and walked away from this,” said Jim Rish. “But I’m fourth generation and he is fifth generation, we just can’t quit.”

Rish Bee Castle

Jim Rish imagines the headline,

“The beetle has been beaten back in Wewahitchka, Florida.”

The beekeeper believes that he may have solved the small hive beetle issue.

“I have struggled and struggled to find a way to beat the beetle and I’ve finally done it,” Rish announced.

After a dozens different designs of trial and error, Rish and his son have designed what they call the Rish Bee Castle.

“There is really no safe space for the beetle in the hive,” said Rish.

Rish believes that the new type of hive will keep many of the beetles away from the hive to begin with, and will give the bees inside a fighting chance to keep beetles that do get inside from laying their larvae.

Rish’s new bee box design isn’t just one fix, but a series of modifications.

“All this form serves a function,” Rish said as he pointed out the changes and innovations he has made.

Normal bee boxes leave gaps that the beetle can enter but the bees can’t follow.

“The old days of raggedy old beehives with knot holes and cracks, you can’t have that anymore,” Rish said.

Making the beetle visible to the bees is central to the design.

“There’s no place for a beetle to live in there,” Rish said.

With the new design, Rish believes he will be able to at least minimize the impact of the small hive beetle on his colonies.

“I’ve got hope to stay in the bee business and not just lose my rear end every year,” Rish said.

That hope isn’t just for him.

The Rishs have worked with two international beekeeping equipment manufactures, Kelley Beekeeping and Shastina Millwork, who have an interest in the Rish Bee Castle.

According to Rish, the companies have provided the equipment at cost because they see the benefit to beekeeping that the Rish Bee Castle provides.

“If the bees disappeared tomorrow, we have a third less food right quick,” Rish explained. “The flower needs the honey bee and we do too.”

Production

The Rishs have tested their new bee box with success.

“There’s been a lot of things tried, but you won’t go anywhere in the United States and see this except right here in the outback of Gulf County,” Rish said.

The father-son duo also has interest from universities about their design.

Florida A&M has already signed on to test it themselves this summer, and the Rish’s are in talks with the University of Florida to do the same.

Until they get better funding, the Rishs plan on building individual bee boxes for more of a hobbyist market.

And while they are looking to earn some money for their intellectual work, the two are more interested in helping other beekeepers with the beetle problem.

“The goal is to make it affordable for people and start stemming the tide of these beetles,” Rish said.

The two are also determining the best way to manufacture the boxes and reach the beekeeping community.

“We’ve got an answer,” said Rish. “It’s just getting the word out and getting these things made.”