FORT PIERCE -- For Florida's 1,200 commercial beekeepers, it literally is the best of times and the worst of times.
Honey prices paid to beekeepers are the highest they've ever been, more than tripling from lows of 39 cents a pound two years ago to as high as $1.60 in January, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Honey Report.
At the same time, beekeepers are battling pests that are killing entire beehives.
"Prices are high, but production is difficult," said Laurence Cutts, assistant chief of plant and apiary inspection at the state Agriculture Department.
"We have beekeepers losing colonies on a grand scale. Some have lost three-fifths of their colonies to mites they are not able to control," Cutts said. "It will only get worse until we come up with something new to control them."
But the primary reason for the higher price of honey these days is that there is a worldwide shortage, resulting mostly from drought.
And for the Gruwell family of Fort Pierce, all this means more work.
The Gruwells, who have been in the honey business since 1956, tend beehives in the several hundred colonies they operate in Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River and Okeechobee counties.
Gone are the days when hives could be left untended in the woods for weeks at a time. Now, beekeepers must be vigilant about checking hives for problems, keeping hives clean of old wax and debris and treating hives for pests. Six family members ages 21 to 76 keep it all going.
"Right now, we are busy trying to keep our bees alive," says Larry Gruwell, 55.
The Gruwell Apiary is a survivor in a business that hundreds of others have deserted. In the mid-1980s, the number of commercial beekeepers in Florida was about 12,000, according to state statistics. That has shrunk to about 1,200 today.
It might be that the Gruwells have survived because they do things without job titles, doing what needs to be done, mixing old sales methods with the new.
For example: Larry's father, Carroll, sells raw honey direct to the public from his Fort Pierce home. A half-gallon goes for $7.50. Customers who pull in off Federal Highway south of Fort Pierce at the sign, "Buzzz on in," are greeted by another faded wood sign that says: "Drive in. Blow horn."
Carroll Gruwell, who's 76, pops out of the house for a recent visitor and picks up one of the honey containers on a table in the garage.
"This is raw honey. What you are getting at the stores isn't. It's pasteurized," he said. "They heat it to give it a longer shelf life. Raw honey has better flavor."
The Gruwells also are paying attention to diversification.
Last year, Carroll's granddaughter Melissa, 28, started the company's Web site, www.buzzzonin.com, and says its sales are growing slowly without a big marketing push.
Melissa Gruwell, a University of Florida graduate who left her teaching job 18 months ago to work in the business, and her mother, Brenda, an elementary school media specialist, have expanded the family company's line of products beyond simple honey. They've developed items such as honey hair conditioners, soaps, lotions and lip balm as well as beeswax candles, all available on the Web site.
"We do it all, from putting the products together to finding the containers and designing the labels," Brenda Gruwell said. "I enjoy the products myself when I come home at the end of the day."
The younger generation also includes Melissa's brother, David, and her cousin, Chris, both 21 and both employed in the business.
The Gruwells sell their products at green markets such as Taste of the Gardens in Palm Beach Gardens and Friday Fest and the Farmers' Market, both in downtown Fort Pierce.
In a good year, the Gruwells produce 300 to 400 55-gallon barrels of honey, which goes to packers such as Sue Bee Honey of Sioux City, Iowa; Dutch Gold of Lancaster, Pa.; and Bee Natural of Princeton. Last year production was low, at about 100 barrels.
Gary Avins, owner of Bee Natural, said he has bought Gruwell honey for years. But the tight market has caused more buyers from other states to buy Florida honey, and that's dried up supply. Avins said he's had to turn to sources outside the state, including foreign imports from Central America, Mexico and elsewhere.
"There is no honey around," Avins said. "I bought everything Gruwell had."
The higher prices are being reflected at the supermarket. A year ago, Bee Natural's 1-pound jar retailed for $1.99. Now it's $2.99, and Avins anticipates another price increase soon.
Foreign disease blamed
Prices are likely to increase partly because of the array of diseases affecting honeybees. Varroa mites, hive beetles, Africanized bees and tracheal mites, as well as the bacterial foul brood disease, all lead to the demise of bee colonies.
Some of these pests and diseases are relatively new to the United States, said Larry Gruwell, who blames them on free-trade policies that have allowed more foreign products easier entry into the country.
Keeping the bees well-fed and strong helps them resist pests and diseases, Gruwell said.
"If they go untreated, the mites will eventually bring the bee population down to where the colony dies off," Gruwell said. "The hive beetle eats the brood and pollen."
Another enemy of healthy bees and hive production has been South Florida's rapid urbanization. For each of the close to 700 people a day moving to Florida, a half-acre of land is converted to urban use, University of Florida economist John Reynolds has said. Much of that land is ideal for beehives.
Additionally, what the state considers an invasive plant species, Brazilian pepper, is vital to the bees, Gruwell said.
"If it weren't for Brazilian pepper, which blooms in October, the bees wouldn't have enough pollen to get through the winter," he said.
Bee Natural's Avins said his concerns go beyond prices to worries about the honey industry's future. Researchers worldwide are working to find ways to fight the bees' enemies.
"They need to come up with a biological control, one that doesn't use chemicals," he said. "We need some cures, or eventually the industry will get wiped out."
The Agriculture Department's Cutts said it's not just honey production that is at risk, but other major crops such as citrus. Bees are the pollinators of Florida citrus, as well as California almonds and Maine blueberries.
The number of bee colonies in the U.S. is declining. It dropped to 2.5 million in 2001 from 3.18 million in 1991, according to the USDA.
"This will most likely be the first year we have had a shortage of bees for pollination," Cutts said. "There will be honey available, but the price will remain high."
Stings a small price to pay
For the Gruwells, the family business has been rewarding despite the difficulties. Larry, who holds a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from the University of Florida, worked at a power plant before seeing an accident at work that spurred him to return home to Fort Pierce to work with the bees.
"One of the boilers we were working on blew up," he said. "I figured the bees might sting a little bit, but they couldn't kill you."
Yes, all the Gruwells say, they are stung regularly, but it's part of the work that can occupy seven days a week. After all, it's nothing new for people whose childhoods were spent around beehives and who every year brave the stings of their particular fortune to bring out their own liquid gold.
"Right now we're building and repairing our bee equipment," Larry Gruwell said. "In a month, we'll be pulling honey."
Family creates buzz for honey business
By Denise Wolf correspondent
November 18, 2002
For 28-year-old Melissa Gruwell, the comparison of honey to pure gold isn't much of a stretch.
The sweet elixir has provided a living for three generations of her family since her grandparents, Carroll and Betty Gruwell, established in 1959 their bee-keeping operation along U.S. 1 just south of Fort Pierce.
Carroll Gruwell had learned the business, like most beekeepers do, from his father Orville Gruwell, a farmer from Ottumwa, Iowa.
Today, the Fort Pierce-based business maintains several hundred colonies in the citrus groves and flatlands across Indian River, Martin, St. Lucie and Okeechobee counties.
Run entirely by family members, theirs is a traditional farm family, absent of titles and driven with an attitude of whatever it takes to get the job done.
During the busiest season -- from February through September -- the five Gruwells often work seven days a week to extract the honey from their many hives.
Apiary founder and grandfather, Carroll Gruwell, remains involved in packing and selling their finest grade honey direct to the public from his home at 4801 Dunn Road along U.S. 1. Although most of their customers are repeat and know the location by heart, a fading sign announces the entrance to the small apiary, inviting customers to "Buzz On In."
"Our business picks up when the Yankees come south," said the elder Gruwell.
Larry Gruwell, 51, Carroll's son and father to Melissa and David, graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in chemical engineering. When he went to college, he didn't intend to make a living with bees. However, it wasn't long before he was drawn back to the farm.
"I worked for about a year before I came back," said Larry Gruwell, who admits some concern for the future of the honey industry because of foreign competition, the introduction of new diseases, which kill off the bees, and the challenges of the area's increasing urbanization.
"You can't make honey out of asphalt," he said.
Jami Yanoski of the National Honey Board says although there are considerable challenges facing the industry, honey production is holding its own as an industry with about 1,600 commercial bee-keeping operations in the United States.
Like the Gruwells', she said, most are family-owned operations that have been passed down through the generations. And like the Gruwells', many are struggling to keep the business afloat.
"We're cautiously optimistic," said Yanoski. "We're especially seeing growth in the varietal honeys like Florida's orange blossom and gallberry varieties."
Yanoski said that a recent study found that honey can still be found in about 87 percent of the nation's households. Since 1980, U.S. honey production has averaged around 200 million pounds per year.
The youngest generation of Gruwells -- Melissa, her brother David Gruwell and cousin Chris Gruwell, both 21 -- is counting on the renewed popularity of the product to carry on the family business.
Under the direction of Carroll and Larry, they produce and sell 55-gallon drums of bakery-grade honey annually to nationally known packers such as Sue Bee Honey, Bee Natural Honey and Grove Honey in a quantity sufficient to provide a living for all involved.
The Gruwell family would not provide specifics about the number of drums produced a year or sales figures for their operation.
Less than two years ago, Melissa Gruwell resigned from a position with the University of Florida and returned home with a master's degree in early learning to join the operation. She, along with Chris and David Gruwell, is leaving no stone unturned in finding new ways to market their product to the growing consumer market along the Treasure Coast.
Recently, Melissa and her mother, Brenda Gruwell, began producing a line of honey-based products such as lip balm, hair conditioner, lotions, as well as bee-wax candles and a line of raw honey and bee pollen. The products often are sold at area events such as Jammin' Jensen in Jensen Beach, the Farmers Market in Fort Pierce and Friday Fest, also in Fort Pierce.
She recently established buzzzonin.com on the Web and is optimistic that the Internet will draw new customers like, well, bees to honey.