Miami-Dade County

South Florida beekeepers stress importance of bees in food chain

The hives behind the Kendall home of chef Rolf Nettesheim, who uses the honey in his recipes.
The hives behind the Kendall home of chef Rolf Nettesheim, who uses the honey in his recipes. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

Bees have long had a bad reputation with people, but local beekeepers say they deserve better buzz.

In fact, bees are critical to the human food chain and their survival depends on a greater appreciation for their hard work, beekeepers say.

“The bees need us more than ever,” said Bob Brennan, an arborist at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables and local beekeeper. “A third of the food we eat would be gone today if we did not have them to pollinate.”

The honeybees’ future is in peril with beekeepers around the country reporting colossal losses, often from pesticide spraying and massive plantings of a single crop. Researchers call this phenomenon colony collapse disorder, and they estimate nearly a third of the nation’s bee colonies have disappeared since 2006.

“I have not been able to keep a hive for a full year and I have been trying for about three,” Brennan said. “My bees would feed in neighboring communities and it’s a wealthy area so they spray for mosquitoes. When one of my hives goes, it is usually because the bees have been sprayed.”

Here are the stories behind two local beekeepers:

When beekeeper John David spoke to guests at Fairchild recently, he did not have any difficulty lauding the honeybees. But this wasn’t always the case.

David, 63, grew up around bees at his childhood home in the United Kingdom, where his parents kept hives in their backyard.

“As a kid, I hated bees,” David said. “I was always getting stung.”

But once David retired to Marathon Key, his wife gave him a hive as a birthday present.

Fast forward five years, and David has gone from owning one hive to 350 hives across the Florida Keys. Last year, his business, KeezBeez, produced more than 20,000 pounds of honey sold to retailers across Florida.

“Now that we are a growing producer of bees, we have learned a lot more about them and have a lot more respect for them,” David said. “I admire them.”

David rattles off facts faster than the page turn of an encyclopedia: There is an antiseptic in bees’ saliva that could paralyze a spider. Honey was found in Egyptian tombs. Humans have been eating honey for 25,000 years.

“There is a saying among beekeepers that even if you live to be 100 years old, you cannot learn all there is to know about bees,” David said. “I believe that is absolutely true.”

For Kendall resident and chef Rolf Nettesheim, beekeeping started as a way to do his part to mitigate colony collapse disorder.

After he learned bees were on the decline, he bought five hives for his acre property seven years ago. Nettesheim did not know much about bees, but soon, like David, he grew fascinated by them.

As a chef, Nettesheim was drawn to the nutritional benefits of honey. Honey quickly became a staple in his kitchen at The Palace, a senior living community in Kendall where he has been the master chef for 15 years.

“Honey is so extremely healthy,” said Nettesheim, 49. “It can improve your immune system because it is antibacterial and an antioxidant.”

He uses honey in his dishes whenever possible, from mango relish for fish to his honey mustard sauce.

“There are thousands of recipes that I use honey for,” Nettesheim said. “I use honey instead of sugar in any dish.”

And Nettesheim has experienced firsthand what honey can do. Before he began cooking with honey, he had serious allergies.

“I didn’t know it would make a difference, but after I began using honey my allergies were soon gone,” he said. “It is because the honey is an antidote to the pollen.”

He also puts honey on his cuts and scrapes he gets from working in the kitchen.

“Honey is much stronger than Neosporin,” Nettesheim said. “You can put it on burns and scrapes because it is an antibiotic.”

With honey in his kitchen pantry, Nettesheim feels he is doing much more for The Palace residents than simply cooking for them.

“Cooking is a small part of what I do there,” he said. “I am able to improve their lives with honey and other healthy ingredients.”

Nettesheim now keeps 10 hives — the most state law permits on an acre — and he sells his FDA-approved honey from his home. From his kitchen in Kendall, Nettesheim demonstrates how to extract the beeswax from the honeycomb. He places a honeycomb in a tall tin extractor, which is spun to draw the honey out so it can be bottled.

Depending on what is in bloom nearby, Nettesheim’s bees produce a specific flavor of honey. The bees pollinate a diverse array of flora within the seven-mile radius they fly from his home.

“Honey is not just honey,” Nettesheim said.

His customers may find he has orange blossom honey, lychee honey, avocado honey or palmetto honey. Often, he has wildflower honey, which is made from everything in bloom at the time.

Some of his customers travel from as far as Palm Beach for his honey. To each, he stresses the merits of bees.

“It is very rewarding work,” he said.