A honey of a neighbor




Marion Lambert definitely knows when spring arrives -- and so do his bees. Lambert, South Tampa’s sole commercial beekeeper, works on his farm in Ballast Point.

Copyright St Pete Times Publishing Co. Mar 26, 2004

In the far corner of his tiny farm, Marion Lambert endures a tornado of bees and eases a slim wooden frame from a box of hives. Beneath a clump of insects, an amber goo glistens.

"Oh yeah," Lambert says. "That's all honey."

Lambert calls his crop "spring honey," but "Tampa honey" might work, too.

Lambert is a beekeeper. In Tampa.

In densely populated South Tampa.

He's among a dwindling group of Florida beekeepers who mine flowers in cities.

In the same way that rural beekeepers tap orange groves and pine plantations, urban beekeepers rely on the things that blossom around them - in yards and parks, in front of strip malls, in the middle of road medians.

Weeds produce the nectar that bees transform into honey. So do backyard citrus trees. So do millions of pretty plants cultivated by a booming landscaping industry.

And yet, in Florida, urban beekeepers are fading away.

Bee-killing pests and foreign competition are a big part of the problem. So are freaked-out residents.

For people who buy honey in the supermarket, maybe it doesn't matter. But if they only knew what beekeepers know: Nothing captures the essence of a place better than a jar of honey.

Lambert, 56, began keeping bees in Tampa 30 years ago, when he left his native Pensacola for construction work at MacDill Air Force Base. He began leasing four acres in Ballast Point. A mile west, cars stream down Dale Mabry Highway. Next door, a row of houses backs up to his farm.

For making honey, "You can't beat this place," Lambert says.

He keeps about 150 hives, right there past the pig, the pony, the two cows and the 11 goats. The bees zip over the turnip greens in the organic garden and buzz past the barns with tin roofs. They rev around the wood-frame house that Lambert and his wife live in and scoot under the Confederate flag that flutters from a pole.

In February, they start the heavy lifting.

Lambert hauls most of his hives to Plant City and Manatee County, where orange groves drip with barrels of nectar. But in April, after the orange trees have been plundered, he'll bring the bees back to South Tampa. Here, they raid palmetto at MacDill, azaleas along Bayshore and bougainvillea, bottle brush and honeysuckle wherever they can find them.

"They work from here to Kennedy Boulevard," Lambert says.

In the groves, Lambert's bees can make 70 pounds of honey per hive per month, a pace that can be sustained only for a couple months. In South Tampa, the bees might make 30 pounds a month, but they make it steady from mid-February to October.

Development hasn't hurt, Lambert says. Landscapers and homeowners looking to spruce up yards bring in gobs of plants that offer overlapping blooming periods.

The result: Honey just keeps flowing.

Beekeepers realize the landscaping industry is "a hidden giant," says Dave Palmer, a horticulture expert with the Hillsborough County Extension Service. A study Palmer did in 2000 found the horticulture industry in Hillsborough County topped $500-million in sales, a figure that rivaled the county's huge farming industry.

Urban beekeeping is hardly confined to Florida.

In Manhattan, hobbyists keep hives on top of apartment buildings, where bees can dart back and forth to community gardens and Central Park. In Boston, there are hives on top of a museum. London has a beekeeper's association.

In Florida, bee experts estimate up to 40 percent of the state's 1,300 beekeepers are based in urban or suburban areas.

In the late 1980s, the state had 2,600 beekeepers. Most of those still plugging away are hobbyists who keep two to 10 hives, just enough to make their own personal stash for sweetening coffee, dribbling into recipes and giving away to friends.

Usually, they operate in peace - until the neighbors find out.

In Leesburg a few years ago, city officials called emergency meetings after a beekeeper parked a trailer full of hives outside his home. Elderly customers at a nearby restaurant panicked when bees buzzed them. In Gainesville, an anonymous complaint in 1998 led authorities to shut down a four-hive operation in a couple's back yard.

Most of the time, the fear is unwarranted, bee experts say.

"Bees are not aggressive, they're defensive about their hives," says Dave Westervelt, a state apiary inspector based in Gainesville. "They're just like humans. If someone bothers your house, you're going to defend it."

In Tampa, farming operations including beekeeping were outlawed in the 1950s. The property Lambert leases was grandfathered in because it had been farmed before he got there.

Until two years ago, Lambert wasn't South Tampa's only beekeeper.

Don Nores kept about 10 hives behind his woodworking shop in Virginia Park for almost 50 years. For a time, he kept another handful in friends' yards in Beach Park.

"People didn't even know they were there," says Nores, 77.

He called his product "neighborhood blossom" and put his own brand name on jars: "Tampa Natural."

Honeys differ in flavor, color and consistency, depending on the plants they're made from.

South Tampa honey is no different: If citrus is in bloom, the honey will taste like oranges. Palmetto adds a native richness; hibiscus, a dash of tropical; Brazilian pepper, a touch of exotic.

When mangroves flower, the honey has a subtle saltiness to it, Lambert says.

Most of Lambert's crop is destined for corporate bakeries around the country, but some is sold at the roadside stand in front of his house.

His South Tampa spring honey should be available in early June.

Lambert's farm is at 6101 S Second St. Take Bayshore Boulevard south, then Interbay Boulevard west, then Second Street south. His stand is at the end of the street.

- Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com .

How Bees Make Honey

Flowers often have special glands, called nectaries, that produce nectar. Worker honey bees suck up nectar from the flowers with their long tongues and store it in their honey stomachs. In the stomach, a process called inversion breaks down the sugar in the nectar into two simple sugars, fructose and glucose. When the worker bee returns to the hive, it regurgitates the nectar back through its mouth. It either gives the nectar to other bees or puts it in an empty cell in the hive. As the water in the nectar evaporates, the nectar changes into honey. Workers then put wax caps on the honey-filled cells. Beekeepers collect honey from the combs. But they leave enough in the hive to feed the bees.

Source: World Book Online Reference Center. Compiled by Times researcher Cathy Wos.

Marion Lambert definitely knows when spring arrives - and so do his bees. Lambert, South Tampa's sole commercial beekeeper, works on his 5-acre farm in Ballast Point.

As busy as, well, bees, some of Marion Lambert's charges work to fill up a hive with the amber gold Lambert will bottle and sell.



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