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Tupelo honey’s bitter year

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Death of Tupelo honey bill coincides with bad year for popular variety

By NICOLE ZEMA
nzema@thewakullanews.net

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Honey production is a bittersweet business in years like this.
Beekeeper Ron Merritt pulled a frame from a Tupelo honey hive in his Smith Creek bee yard, and was only able to scrape a tiny bit with his fingernail.
“It’s an abysmal year,” Merritt said. “Tupelo is a very sensitive bloom. If you get a rainstorm and a windstorm at the same time, it washes off the bloom. And it’s over.”
Merritt believes a swarm of factors contributed to the Tupelo honey shortage this year: a badly timed rainstorm washed nectar from the flowers after they bloomed in early, hot weather. When additional heavy winds and rains finished the flowers off, it led to a scarcity of the local Tupelo honey variety that is so popular.
The year started out strongly for the “Cadillac of honeys” though. Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, sponsored a bill to declare Tupelo honey as Florida’s Official State Honey.
But with an abrupt end to the legislative session, the bill just lay there, much like the saturated Tupelo blooms drooping from the trees.
For local beekeepers however, the honeymoon is not over. The Merritts will simply move the hives near some low bush gallberries to make gallberry honey as the season closes.
Merritt said Sen. Montford’s Tupelo honey bill is a great idea.
“If there is any honey that stands out as special to the State of Florida, Tupelo should be the one,” Merritt said. “It can’t be made anywhere else in the world with enough purity to be called Tupelo honey. It’s unique to this area, and absolutely worth noting it.”
Sen. Montford is a sixth-generation North Floridian, and grew up with the taste of Tupelo. The trees bloomed where he fished along the Apalachicola, Ochlocknee and Chipola rivers.
“I love Tupelo honey,” Montford said during the legislative session. “It’s a very unique honey. The Tupelo tree only grows along the banks of those rivers in North Florida, and some of South Georgia. It’s a unique tree that makes a unique honey.”
There is currently no official state honey. Montford not only wants to honor this sweet aspect of North Florida agriculture, but also create buzz about bee colony collapse disorder – a phenomenon in which worker bees from a European honey bee colony abruptly disappear.
“Quite frankly, people have asked – why in the world is Bill Montford spending time on this issue, when others are important?” Montford said. “This is an issue of making sure that recognition is given to a very unique Florida treasure. And we have to remember bees are in danger right now.”
Senate Bill 1050 goes through same process as any other bill. Montford, who is chair of the Florida Senate Agriculture Committee, will probably bring the bill back next session, if it is not handled in the June special session.
“This is a God-blessed part of the world,” Montford said. “The more my South Florida colleagues learn about North Florida, the more they want to move up here.”
Beekeepers Ron and Sonja Merritt agree that Tupelo honey country is the place to be.
They produce honey full time with their assistant, Skylar Smith, at their facility in Smith Creek.  
Bill Merritt of Smith Creek learned the occupation from his father-in-law’s family, the Wilsons, and now his son Ron Merritt continues the tradition.
“He always hated it when he was a kid, because he had to work,” Bill Merritt said. “But now, they’re still doing bees.”
Bill Merritt was president of the Florida Beekeepers Association in 1982, the American Beekeeping Federation in the ‘80s, and ran several thousand colonies.
“Dad is very distinguished in the field,” Ron Merritt said. “And very well respected to this day. He is a valuable resource to myself and many, many other beekeepers in the area.”
Commissioner Randy Merritt said he grew up working in the beeyards with his younger brother, but decided to seek a different occupation.
Ron Merritt worked as a respiratory therapist for years while beekeeping on the side, and switched to beekeeping fulltime this year. But it’s still all about people.
“I served the public in my former career for a number of years, and I am continuing to serve the public by providing pollination, and a natural treat for people to eat,” Merritt said.
The occupation requires eclectic knowledge – some chemistry, a little engineering, mechanics, business sensibility and definitely entomology.
Part of the reason Tupelo is a special variety, is because of its levulose to dextrose ratio, Merritt said.
“It’s the ratio of the sugars and honey that prevents it from granulating,” Merritt said. “It has a very good reputation, and it has been around a long time.”
Merritt said there must be a sufficient concentration of Tupelo trees in the swamps to produce enough Tupelo nectar, so it’s not mixed with other types of honey. He added the interest in Tupelo honey perked up when the film “Ulee’s Gold” was released – a Florida film about a beekeeper played by Peter Fonda. FSU film professor Victor Nuñez made the film.
“But the crops just haven’t been there in the past six or seven years,” Merritt said. “They’d been about at half what they should be. And this year, it’s none. Absolutely none. We won’t extract a single barrel of Tupelo this year.”
While the Merritts will produce other crops of wildflower honey this year, “It’s a lot less valuable than Tupelo, which has a very high demand. It’s a shame.”
The smell of honey is intoxicating as the doors open to the Merritts’ storage and production facility. An automated machine is loaded with beehive frames. The frames are sent to a spin cycle that slings the honey off. Beeswax is scraped from the frames, which is a renewable product itself.
While Merritt runs about 500 hives at any given time, he is concerned about colony collapse disorder.
“They don’t have a good definition for it,” Merritt said. “Bees are dying at an unacceptable rate. I would say a 50 percent loss every year.”
Honey season runs from March to June. After the next crop, the Merritts will spend the rest of the year rebuilding hives.
“And these nucs are my attempt to go ahead and get a head start on that,” Merritt said, pointing to rows of small hives, topped with jars of sugary liquid.
“(The bees) make a lot of honey in a hurry if they’re good and strong,” he said. “The jars of high fructose corn syrup is food for the bees in the downtime. It’s a nectar substitute. Right now, there’s a dearth of nectar until gallberries start. I made these hives weak, because didn’t want them to get strong too fast. I’m supplementing their diet because I don’t want them to have the foraging capacity of a strong hive. They don’t have to go out and find food. It’s right there waiting on them.”
Merritt encouraged those interested in apiculture, or beekeeping, to start small and gather information.
“It’s a strongly satisfying and fulfilling thing to have a couple hives in your backyard garden,” Merritt said. “Start out small. Don’t overload your capacity. Learn from someone who knows, and listen to them. It’s not something you’re going to jump into and make a fortune overnight. It’s definitely a long-term investment.”
Merritt thanked Mark Demott of the U.S. Farm Service Agency in Monticello, who has been helpful in implementing federal programs for beekeepers, like the Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees and Farm-Raised Fish Program (ELAP), to address colony collapse disorder, and the Rain Index Insurance.
Any kind of agriculture can be precarious, and sometimes heartbreaking. But the rewards are sweet.
“The biggest challenge are the crop losses – the beehive losses,” Merritt said. “It’s very challenging every year having to rebuild about half of your bees, and it’s been that way for a number of years now. But I love making the honey, putting the boxes on, watching the bees flourish, just seeing more bees in the hive every day. A good strong hive of bees makes more honey. That’s my favorite part, seeing how well the bees are doing. I absolutely love it. There are issues – you have mites and other things we deal with, and its frustrations, but its well worth it to me.”