Sweet Success

By Mary Beth Erskine


TAMPA, Fla. (Oct. 30, 2009)  On a bustling campus, USF Botanical Gardens is an oasis of tranquility – a sanctuary of thick foliage, verdant paths and earthy aromas. It’s a haven where the occasional chirp of a resident cardinal accents the hollow tones of gently swaying budda belly bamboo.


Yet, just off the well-worn trail of damp mulch and dirt and out of the lush shadows is, quite literally, a beehive of activity. An unassuming, white wooden box houses the gardens’ newest and long-awaited residents – Italian honey bees, Apis mellifera ligustica, to be exact. And while their ancestry may be European, this particular generation is USF-campus born and bred.


According to Botanical Gardens Director Laurie Walker, a beehive had been on the staff’s wish list for years. Yet how the current hive came to rest near the entrance gate on USF Pine Drive is more the result of providence than perseverance when earlier this year, Gary Van Cleef came knocking on the garden’s screen door. A lifelong bee enthusiast, he volunteered to bring a hive to the gardens and tend it.


“Needless to say, we were all elated,” said Walker.


A retired Marine gunnery sergeant and lifelong beekeeper, Van Cleef’s fascination for bees started when, as an 11-year old Boy Scout, he earned the beekeeping merit badge, igniting a passion for the gentle creatures. His zeal quickly outgrew his backyard to encompass 25 hives that he kept at a local orange grove. Unable to be far from his “girls,” as beekeepers call their bees, he kept an observation hive in his bedroom so he could watch them all the time. “It was a great excuse for not doing homework,” he says.


Van Cleef created a hive for the Botanical Gardens and was preparing to relocate it to the USF campus. “We were all ready for the bees and so excited,” says Walker, “when Gary called with the news that a bear had gotten his paws on it and had eaten it.”


The “Bee Whisperer”

While nature took its course and the bear its feast, the hopes of Walker and her staff were not dashed for long. Shortly thereafter, Walker received another call. A work order had been initiated to get rid of a bee hive near the main library. Swarming bees were causing a nuisance, and the hive was going to be destroyed unless the gardens were interested in saving it.


“Were we interested!” laughs Walker.


It was time to call in the Marines – or at least one – to rescue the colony, which Van Cleef says was fairly simple to do. “They had only been in that location for less than a week, so there was no honey-filled hive yet for them to defend. It was still just a swarm, so they were very gentle. I just shook the tree limb a bit, tapped on the box, and in they went.”


“It was amazing,” says Kim Hutton, Botanical Gardens special events coordinator. “It’s why we call Gary the ‘bee whisperer.’”


In no time, the bees were transported across campus to the Botanical Gardens where they thrived. Within less than a month, what Van Cleef estimates was about 10,000 bees rapidly swelled to 70,000.


Interest in the bees and beekeeping took off, as well. Van Cleef began teaching a series of beekeeping workshops at the gardens drawing dozens – and for one class more than 100 – enthusiastic participants from not only the Tampa Bay area and the state, but from as far away as New York. While the USF Botanical Gardens attract more than 70,000 visitors a year, Walker says the focus on beekeeping has created a “buzz” unlike she has ever seen before.


“Offering beekeeping classes has been an amazing draw for the Botanical Gardens,” she says, noting that the next closest botanical gardens to offer training in beekeeping is in Atlanta. In fact, the participants in the Van Cleef’s workshops at USF have become such a tight-knit group that they are considering plans to pool their resources to form a share crop at the gardens. According to Walker, the USF Botanical Gardens, alone, could sustain up to four hives with enough plant life in the local area to keep up to 30 hives busy.


Sweet Reward

In addition to pollinating the gardens, as well as enriching its educational objectives by enabling the staff to showcase the bees’ fundamental role within the gardens ecosystem, the bees also contribute to the university’s sustainability mission.


The most active pollinators of any insect, bees are essential to the survival of numerous ecosystems. Their future, however, is threatened due to diminishing populations worldwide. Known as colony collapse disorder, the exact cause of the expanding syndrome remains unclear. Nonetheless, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with the introduction of new pathogens and pests since the 1980s, honey bee health has been steadily declining.


This fact about the fragile future of bees only emboldens the resolve of the staff at the Botanical Gardens to maintain a home for them at the USF campus.


Of course, in addition to the ecological and sustainability reasons for keeping bees, there is the effort’s sweet payoff.


“You have never had honey until you’ve had pure, unfiltered local honey,” says Walker. USF’s first harvest resulted in a little more than a gallon of the golden liquid and plans are to sell the honey as future crops become more bountiful.


Honey that is both “green” and gold.