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Bee Spell

When the air is wine and the wind is free and the morning sits on the lovely lea and sunlight ripples on every tree Then love-in-air is the thing for me I'm a bee — from Song of the Queen Bee, by E.B. White In the stillness before dawn, Lee...
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When the air is wine and the wind is free
and the morning sits on the lovely
lea and sunlight ripples on every tree
Then love-in-air is the thing for me I'm a bee
— from Song of the Queen Bee, by E.B. White

In the stillness before dawn, Lee Del Signore can hear the steady hum in his head as he stumbles from his bed to his cluttered kitchen.

A few minutes later he turns the ignition key in his truck and pilots the grumbling flatbed through the darkness to an avocado orchard a few miles away. Once there he moves in silence, collecting honeybee colonies in wooden boxes and stacking them on the truck. He doesn't wear a protective suit or veil; his only uniform is a stained, unbuttoned shirt over an equally stained T-shirt, worn jeans held up with suspenders, and laceless work boots. His bifocals dangle around his neck.

For now Del Signore's diligent minions are quiet. They'll wake in another world, another stand of flowering trees to explore. "They're flying at daybreak," Del Signore says.

At first light the females take off, leaving the queen and her male drones behind. They sidle up to avocado blossom after blossom, grabbing a quick kiss of nectar before looking for the next conquest. They'll visit thousands of flowers during the day, returning to the hive about a dozen times to leave behind the raw material for honey. Del Signore's bees make, among other potions, an avocado-lychee honey blend unique to this region.

That afternoon back at the "honey barn" outside his small one-story house on Krome Avenue in Homestead, the 55-year-old Del Signore leaned against a post and pondered the future. Where once there were dozens of beekeepers helping pollinate Miami-Dade's 38,000 acres of vegetables, worth more than $100 million in annual sales, now there are two: Del Signore and his buddy, John Genpzel, also age 55.

The county's output accounts for 97 percent of Florida's sweet potato crop, 70 percent of the state's okra, 55 percent of squash, and 54 percent of beans. A third of all crops require cross-pollination either to germinate or grow to full size and quality. "The world's food supply rests on the backs of honeybees," says Dr. Jamie Ellis, an entomologist at the University of Florida.

So what will happen when Del Signore and Genpzel are gone? "That's the $10,000 question. It's more than $10,000," Del Signore says. "Not too many people going into bees these days."

Genpzel, sitting on a metal folding chair across from Del Signore in the honey barn, leaned back and crossed his freckle-covered arms across his boiler-size chest. His blue button-up strained at the waist and his bushy gray sideburns spilled out from under his camouflage Dade Farm Bureau cap.

He recalled starting his first bee colony with friends when he was thirteen years old. It was part of a Future Farmers of America program at Genpzel's middle school in Homestead. "Kids today, they just want to watch TV," he laughed. "My son says when I die, he's gonna put [the bees] on the street corner and sell 'em for a dollar apiece."

While there are more than 1000 beekeepers across Florida, including 37 in Miami-Dade, few hire out their charges as professional pollinators. "People read about bees, and they get all these romantic notions," Del Signore says. "They get real enthusiastic for about one season."

Standing around in the honey barn, where even the air is sticky and sweet, it's easy to see how someone might fall under the trance, slip into the humming meditation of beekeeping. Just look at the amber liquid roll in slow-motion waves from the centrifuge to a collection pool, and then through a pipe to steel barrels that each fill with 600 pounds of the stuff. You could be excused for feeling vaguely anesthetized while watching groggy clumps of stranded bees climb the windows in search of the sky.

Doing the daily work of a beekeeper is another story. This time of year Del Signore is busy moving his bees to avocado and squash fields. Come May he'll truck them north to palmetto gallberry and cabbage palm stands in the Cape Canaveral area, then in September he'll bring them back for fall flowers. By November they'll move on to primrose willow stands.

To call Del Signore the master of his nearly quarter of a billion bees would be a mistake. His thick knuckles are stained with oil and honey, and his wiry eyebrows hang over eyes that are deep-set in his pockmarked face. He is constantly, quietly at work, inspecting the colonies for beetles and mites, moving the boxes — called supers — supervising the honey extraction, and troubleshooting. "We're slaves to the bees," he says. Then, like some kind of Zen bee master, he adds, "We're the bees. You're either the bees or you're not."

Among Del Signore's clients of "many, many" years is Vito Strano, who works 2500 acres in Homestead, including bee-dependent avocado orchards and squash fields. "Without [bees], we wouldn't survive," the 69-year-old said. "I don't know what we're going to do" if Del Signore's beekeeping business doesn't continue into the future.

A recent report by the National Research Council, a nonprofit science advisory group, decried the falloff in professional beekeeping. "Despite its apparent lack of marquee appeal," the report stated, "a decline in pollinator populations is one form of global change that actually has credible potential to alter the shape and structure of terrestrial ecosystems."

Genpzel put it another way: "If the bees all die, you're going to be eatin' nothin'. What's going to happen when we don't grow our own food? We're going to be cutting off our noses to spite our faces."

Gerry Hayes, head of the apiary bureau at the Florida Department of Agriculture, agrees, saying a potential economic disaster is in the works. If bee pollination ends, there won't be much local crop. Low domestic output equals high dependence on foreign imports. "Do we want to get our butts in a bind like we have with oil?" he says.

Africanized "killer bees" haven't brightened the outlook. Recent hype included an incident this past January when firefighters killed about 30,000 bees in Arch Creek Park, near Biscayne Boulevard and NE 135th Street. The insects were incorrectly thought to be Africanized. "Once they get mad, people call 'em African," Del Signore shrugs. He avoids the whole issue by buying his new queen bees mail order from Hawaii, an island untouched by the species.

And there are hurricanes and flooding. You can't do much to remove the bees from harm's way, though. "You just hope you don't lose too much," Del Signore says.

He doesn't have any kids, and he isn't sure what the future holds for his bees. But for now nothing will change, he says. "I'm too old to do anything else."

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