Lack of water, over-harvesting issues
The next three weeks or so is the buzz the harvest of Tupelo honey.
But the Tupelo, the tree, its blossoms and the honey they produce, with a huge helping hand from the honeybee, is under pressure.
From the ever-lower water flows from the Apalachicola River.
From the demand of the marketplace, where the worth of Tupelo honey sits well above that of most honeys, making production more attractive.
And that has led to an increase in producers, in the case of Gulf County, out-of-state and region producers following pollination patterns and honing in on the valuable honey only produced locally.
“You have a very sought-after plant that is not doing well and is being over-foraged,” said Jeff Pippin of the Florida Department of Agriculture, which regulates beekeeping in the state.
The problems, said County Extension Director Ray Bodrey, begins at the Tupelo tree.
The tree, particularly young saplings, must have plenty of water to survive; the tree flourishes along the banks of Apalachicola and Chipola Rivers.
But the reduced flows along the river system from the north, and Georgia, the subject of long-running “water wars”, is nibbling away at habitat.
Pippin noted that along the river, areas that once were deep, saturated muck yearround now “crunch” underfoot.
“Tupelo needs that water, it has to have that water to grow,” Pippin said.
Some sloughs and creeks have simply dried up.
The health of the hives is also in the mix, with a type of mite followed by evidence of a bacterial blight impacting harvests the past couple of years.
“The harvest produced last year was not very good,” Pippin said.
The nature of beekeeping also factors into hive health, Pippin said.
Many keepers travel across a region or country, even to California, to pollinate any number of crops, from almonds to cranberries.
But that travel, and interaction with bees and hives from other spots on the map, increases the chances of disease or pest transmittal.
For County Commissioner Ward McDaniel, there is also the human issue.
Pippin noted that the number of bees and keepers in Florida has multiplied, nearly by a factor of three, in recent years.
In turn, the demand for Tupelo has grown as has the human population of the state.
That has led to an increased number of keepers attempting to make a buck during a single three-week season from a finite root habitat.
McDaniel said a man offered to pay to park a semi-trailer of bee hives on his property.
Keepers not from Gulf County have, in the past few years, come to descend on Gulf County with their hives to tap into the Tupelo market.
Additionally, McDaniel added, where keepers once agreed to give each other “breathing room” and not crowd, in current times folks are a tad less flexible and a little more territorially-aggressive.
“If we don’t address some of these human issues we are going to lose this,” McDaniel said.
Pippin said his department has rules and there are some in place regarding temporary establishment of hives, they must be inspected for starters, and said the department is also reaching out to keepers with an education campaign.
He said too much money and resources were being wasted over-harvesting a Tupelo crop that is finite and in peril.