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‘The more bees, the better’

Associate Editor Regular News

STEVEN CULBREATH, an attorney and certified beekeeper, tends to his backyard hives.

‘The more bees, the better’

St. Pete lawyer keeps bees as a stress-relieving hobby

Associate Editor

In Steven Culbreath’s backyard in St. Petersburg, three hives each swarm with about 40,000 bees.

The attorney recently became a state registered beekeeper, but always enjoyed gardening. He said bees travel anywhere between three to five miles from their hives, in a circle, and anyone within that range benefits from their presence. The bees produce honey and work hard to keep the neighborhood pollinated.

“I find that it’s an incredibly rewarding and stress-relieving hobby,” Culbreath said. “It’s actually a nice way to spend time outside in nature. You’re actually doing something good for animals. You’re doing something good for all your neighbors’ yards, even your own yard. Everything blooms nicer. Everything grows nicer.”

Culbreath went through a two-day training program in March at the Bee College in St. Augustine, which is affiliated with the University of Florida. Fluent in German, he has been practicing immigration law almost exclusively since 2003 as a solo practitioner. He is a foreign-born U.S. citizen, having spent the first 20 years of his life in Germany, but went to college and law school in Florida, where his father was originally from.

“Any lawyer who is looking for an outdoor hobby other than growing herbs can get involved in beekeeping, and the State of Florida — the Department of Agriculture — really wants people to do it because of all the fruit and everything that we export.”

He emphasized the State of Florida is “very pro-beekeeping,” and makes it easy for people to get involved because it’s in the state’s interest to have the highest population of bees possible.

“If a city or a county says, ‘Hey, we don’t like you having bees in your yard,’ you can just call your Department of Agriculture inspector who is responsible in your area, and your inspector will deal with them,” he asserted.

“They try to make it as easy as possible. Obviously, there are state statutes and administrative rules on what you have to do, and what you’re required to do as a licensed beekeeper. The Florida Department of Agriculture, which oversees these regulations, will help register beekeepers if they have problems on a local level, with county ordinances or city ordinances because state law trumps them.”

The deficient bee population, he said, is due to pesticides and large-scale agriculture.

“The problem that we’re having with the bees, now that they’re vanishing: Our agriculture has become so mechanized, and we’re using all these pesticides, and all this genetically modified food. I started reading about it, and it just became something that I wanted to become involved in. The more I started investigating this, the more I realized the State of Florida really wants people to do this,” he said.

“The bees have always piqued my interest to some extent. I started realizing we were really harming the bee population. I was determined to get involved and do something, and it’s catching on.”

Culbreath said the diminutive creatures thrive in the sun, and he’s not at all afraid of them. To keep bees healthy, “You place the hives in a sunny location, usually somewhere in the southern part of your yard.”

“The more sun the better. Makes them more active. Keeps them stronger. Makes their hives more defendable against parasites that don’t like full sun because a lot of the parasites, like certain beetles, like moisture and darkness,” he said.

“The more you learn about them, the more you learn how to handle them. The more you get educated by people who actually keep bees, the more you realize: Just like every other animal, there are do’s and don’ts. There are proper ways to treat them. There are improper ways to treat them, and obviously, if you have no idea what you’re doing, you’re going to get hurt.”

How often do beekeepers handle their hives?

He said in the summer, you want to inspect the bees every seven to 10 days, just like a vet would look over an animal.

“You go in the hives and make sure the queen is laying her eggs. Is there any infestation or parasites? Is there anything fishy going on with the honey or the nectar? Look and give them a routine exam. In the winter months, you stretch it out to every three weeks.

“You leave them alone and let them be bees,” he explained. “Let them do their thing. Let them go to work. First sunlight goes out — they go to work. Sunlight goes down — they go back into their hives. You just kind of leave them alone on autopilot.

“You don’t want to bother them and stress them. If you’re poking your head in their hive every day, you’re stressing them. That’s why you want to do it every week or every 10 days. You inspect what you can as quickly as you can.”

Culbreath said other beekeepers and local bee associations are wonderful resources for amateurs who run into problems.

“If you really have issues, you call your agriculture inspector and say, ‘Hey, I’m having an outbreak or infestation or parasite. What do I need to do to treat them?’”

Culbreath said the feel-good hobby, which is relatively affordable and low-maintenance, doesn’t take up too much time. But bees need to be attended to, just like any other living being.

“It’s like keeping any other animal outside, whether it’s cows or horses or sheep. You have to be aware of what’s going on around them.”

Culbreath hopes others will be inspired to become backyard beekeepers, and added, “The more bees in Florida, the better.”

The bounty of honey that is harvested will be sold to consumers, and given to close friends, family, and supporters.

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