Tupelo Tango

Honey production is a Forgotten Coast heritage

Buzzing around the fields and flowers of Northwest Florida is a tiny economic dynamo, the most behind-the-scenes kind of worker you’ll find. The humble honeybee may be small, but in the grand scheme of things, we’d starve without it. The little critters are so important that even NASA uses them to study how climate change might be affecting pollination patterns.

In the grocery store, the average consumer may not give the honeybee a second thought. But beekeepers across the Sunshine State and the rest of the nation are fighting against pests, wacky weather patterns and environmental disruptions.

In Florida, honeybees are responsible for some 80 percent of all insect pollination, and honey is a $20 million — or more — industry.

“We’ve got to have (honeybees),” said Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Charles H. Bronson. “Fruits and vegetables and flowering plants are absolutely dependent not only on the honeybee but any type of insects that go from flower to flower. That’s how we get our food supply.”

Beekeepers are well aware of the role their tiny insects play in the state economy.

“In Florida, you wouldn’t have 90 percent of agriculture without the honeybee,” said beekeeper Roger Twitchell, vice president of the Florida State Beekeepers Association. Twitchell and wife Ellyn Hutson, president of the Apalachee Beekeepers Association, are active hobbyists with 16 hives at their Caney Branch Farm near Wacissa in Jefferson County. “So then what is the economic impact of the honey industry? It’s not $20 million. It’s billions of dollars.”

There are all kinds of honey to be harvested in Florida, such as clover, wildflower, palmetto and orange blossom. Perhaps the most famous is the revered tupelo honey, harvested from the nectar of the white tupelo tree, also known as the ogeechee tupelo. This special tree grows only in the river swamps of the Apalachicola and Chipola rivers, and some are even found along the Ochlockonee and Choctawhatchee rivers.

“Virtually all tupelo honey is produced in the 850 area code, and it’s popular all over the world,” said longtime beekeeper Laurence Cutts, 74, past president of the Florida State Beekeepers Association and a former apiary inspector.

“In this area, everybody pretty much knows that the best tupelo honey comes from Gulf County,” said 22-year commercial beekeeper Don Smiley of Smiley’s Apiaries in Wewahitchka. “The reason for that is — and this is important — when our tupelo trees are in bloom, and our bees are working the tupelo on this side of the (Apalachicola) river, there’s nothing else in bloom at the same time. So all they’re going to make is tupelo honey.”

Tupelo honey is so popular that it has worked its way into pop culture. There’s the famous Van Morrison song, and a Panhandle beekeeper (played by Peter Fonda) was the central character in “Ulee’s Gold,” a film by Florida-born director Victor Nunez.

As long as tupelo trees keep growing, tupelo honey will be collected. But there’s a problem. Smiley said the region is losing ogeechee tupelo trees.

“The U.S. Geological Survey says that since the 1950s, 44 percent of the tupelo trees have disappeared,” he said. “The swampy terrain that the tupelo need to live has been decimated and slowly been degraded over the years.”

However, Smiley said he had two back-to-back “bumper crops” of honey this year and last. He said last year’s production was better than this year’s, but not by much. He produced 109 drums of tupelo in 2008 and 95 this year.

Smiley blames the loss of trees on irregular weather patterns, periods of drought, and navigation dredging on the Apalachicola. Upstream, the city of Atlanta’s water hoarding hasn’t helped matters.

“The biggest threat to tupelo honey is the amount of water they take from Lake Lanier in Georgia,” he said.

When the river is down and sloughs dry up, upland species of trees move in and can crowd out the tupelo. The same thing happens when dredge material is pumped up on the riverbank. But then again, too much water can be a bad thing. A flood in 1994 cost Smiley 60 hives of bees.

Meanwhile, Bronson said there is talk of re-establishing the tupelo in places where it has been lost. But he cautioned that if the weather and water conditions don’t remain stable, doing so could be tricky.

But, he said, “Let’s face it, trees only live to be so old.”

Categories: Forgotten Coast 2010, Forgotten Coast Archive