THE ANCIENT ART OF BEEKEEPING “THE APIARIST” HAROLD P. CURTIS HONEY STORE LABELLE, FLORIDA
By: Nancy Dale
Dating back to the Egyptians some 5,000 years ago, humans have been keeping bees. In those early days, humans observed wild bees flying from flower-to-flower depositing a yellow substance (pollen) and soon noticed that the flower ripened into fruits or vegetables. Not only did early humans witness “pollination” but also succumbed to the sweet taste of bee nectar.
Beekeepers known as “Apiarists,” domesticated wild hives for honey production and began to create other marketable by-products from the industrious bees. One of these unique by-products is “propolis” (bee glue made from tree resin to seal open spaces in the hive and used in ancient times to heal wounds). Other by-products are beeswax (secreted by Worker Bees onto scales of their abdomen later discarded in the hive) and Royal Jelly (a substance secreted by Worker Bees fed to the larvae of a potential Queen Bee). The beekeeper or “Apiarist” is the human caretaker of the hive’s production.
Harold P. Curtis and his family are fourth generation Apiarists in Labelle, Florida, opening the honey store in 1921. Today, his son and daughter, Rene Curtis Pratt and James Curtis run the store. It has “blossomed” into one of the most popular tourist attractions and health centered businesses in Central Florida with a worldwide reputation. For the past seventy years, located in the heart of LaBelle’s historic district, 335 Bridge Street, walking distance to the beautiful Kissimmee River, the Curtis family has been hand-bottling pure honey in the store’s back room and selling it. Above one of the shelves, magnifying the family’s long history is a framed picture of founder Harold B. Curtis who today spends most of his time producing and saving the endangered Queen Bee. “Several years ago the Queen Bee’s life expectancy was 3 to 4 years; today it is 1 year,” says Rene. “Polluting by-products of Florida’s explosive population growth is threatening bee colonies. There is only one fertile Queen Bee in a beehive and, today, the approximate 3 million hives in the State are in jeopardy.”
Florida bee colonies are negatively affected by widespread radiation from cell phone towers, (disturbing the life cycle of the bee’s reproduction system and honey production), environmental/chemical and Agra- pollution. Besides these human created concerns, “another threat to the hive is the invasive beetle and mite, such as the Varro Intestinal Mite that sneaks into vulnerable hives by attaching to the bee like a flea on a dog, then feasts on the colony’s young brood,” Rene explains. “These insects also introduce pesticides and fungal pathogens into the hive that can collapse the entire colony.”
“A little known fact about bees” explains Rene is that “by their Nature, they like dark skies; however with developments sprawling throughout Florida and the introduction of bright artificial lights, bees swarm to the light distracting them from returning to the hive to do their work.”
“There is also the threat of Africanized bees,” says Rene. “Since 1965, we have had to breed, or buy, our own Queens since most hives have been infiltrated. They have a different DNA and fly away from the hive. Now my dad is raising our own Queens. We cross-breed our Queens to keep them producing. This is how we propagate the hive colony.”
Rene is a very talented “Apiarist” and treats the bees like “family;” even her grandchildren “talk” to the bees. “One time, one of my grandsons lifted open one of the bee boxes but the bees ignored him and kept right on with their honey-making business. “Bees react to ‘fear.’ It is only the male bee that stings. I have been stung only once or twice over the many years I have been collecting beeswax and honey from the hive as bees learn a caretaker’s deposition. Unlike the wasp, a bee dies after it empties its entire body into the sting.”
“Working with bees is an intricate process but very rewarding,” adds Rene. “Honey made by bees is pure and provides healing properties. We also use their beeswax to make non-drip candles that we sell in the store; they are the cleanest and most fragrant candles you can buy,” Rene emphasizes. “The candles purify the air and eliminate bad odors. We also make soap, and sell homemade jellies made by a friend of mine.”
Rene is an expert on bee behavior. “Bees work by the season when flowers bloom as they fly from flower-to-flower propagating them with the needed pollen they collect. The process of pollination begins with the female bee flying from male to female flowers of various crops. The female workers keep the hive functioning while male bees mostly just eat and fertilize the Queen.”
In the Spring, when orange trees are blooming, Rene sets out the bee hive boxes in citrus groves to produce Orange Blossom honey then takes them to Sanibel Island to produce Seagrape and Mangrove honey; they also bottle Palmetto and Wildflower honey. Bees fly in a radius of about two miles from their hive and are going to many kinds of flowering plants. It takes two to eight weeks to make honey and to be ready for bottling. Honey contains about 60 calories per tablespoon.
“Bees have a sophisticated, yet simplistic behavior to gather nectar from flowers. The Worker bee puts out its ‘tongue’ or ‘straw’ into the flower to collect nectar and pollen to make honey to feed the hive. As they chew the honey and mix it with their saliva, it forms ‘Beeswax’ which they spit out to build Honeycomb, a six-sided cell filled and covered with wax where they store nectar and protect their young. Worker bees have 8 pairs of wax glands under their abdomen and produce a small amount of wax on their scales. Worker bees have baskets on their legs to gather the pollen and ‘set’ the fruits or vegetables.’ The Worker bee scrapes off the wax from the scales or pollen baskets using their spines. The nectar is put into the honeycomb cells and is capped with wax to seal it.”
Making honey from the hives is a sophisticated removal process. “The beehive consists of two layers in the bee box with a screen. At the top of the box is pollen and honey, nectar is on the bottom. The screen is taken out and we stand it up in our ‘Uncapper’ machine in the back of the store. The Uncapper spins for twenty minutes to separate the wax and honeycomb. We then take the cleaned rack out and place it back into the hive. The honey now settles for 24 hours in a ‘holding tank’ until it is ready to be piped into several drums with different types of honey. We sit at the end of the drums and bottle the honey by hand. It then is ready to be labeled and put on the shelves for sale.”
“We collect honey several times a week and bottle our own raw, unfiltered honey to preserve the quality of the pollen. One of the most frequently asked questions to us by visitors: ‘Is our honey raw and unprocessed?’ Yes, it is! Our honey is not cooked or processed. Honey that is overheated beyond 180 degrees is imported from China and does not have healing properties. One of the outstanding qualities of honey is its healing properties. If you are coming down with a cold, eat honey, as it boosts the immune system. Some beekeepers use the bee ‘sting’ to heal certain health conditions that is the ancient science of ‘Apitherapy,’ Rene explains.
An article in Holistic Medicine (2016) says bee venom attacks inflammation. The stinger has been used to treat Fibromyalgia, Multiple Sclerosis, Arthritis and other human ailments. Some European doctors use the bee venom to make a serum. According to Fred Finkelman, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, “Understanding the evolution of allergic responses is a new beginning, more than the end of a story.”
Rene explains how the bee stinging process works. A long tweezer is used to place the bee on the skin. The stinger is left inside the person to ‘pulsate’ and empty its venom. When the stinger quits pulsating, it is empty and can be scratched out. However, for everyday treatment of bee stings, you can apply baking soda, vinegar, or meat tenderizer to take away pain. If I am stung, I do nothing!”
Another little known fact about bees is that they use electromagnetic energy. Since the 1960’s, scientists have been aware of the “electric” side of pollination. Botanists suggest that electric forces enhance the attraction of bees to certain flowers for pollination. Professor Robert Clarke, Physicist, University of Bristol, says “Bumble bees can sense the electric field surrounding a flower and can determine the sweetness of the bloom by their shape. This is another very new field of study.”
How do you story honey? It does not need refrigeration but if it becomes condensed over time, Rene suggests “simply put the bottle in the sun or heat it in a small pan of water to return it to its liquid consistency. We also use pollen to make Royal Jelly (the Queen’s only diet) and ‘Propolis’ eaten to neutralize bacteria, fungi and viruses. Matter of fact, bee pollen is said to be the perfect food! We also sell a unique product called ‘Bee Caps’ a company founded by Tony Hueston, Sr. who writes the following story:
”In 1986, my mother, Pauline ‘Grandma’ Hueston was hospitalized in critical condition suffering from 8 separate very serious medical problems. She eventually had to have bypass surgery. We thought she might die. A friend from Europe sent four bottles of bee pollen, royal jelly, Propolis and raw honey to Grandma. She was told it would improve her appetite and regain her strength. After 3 months, she became strong, increased her stamina and strength. She lived to nearly 90 years old enjoying her family.”
“If a beginner wants to start a beehive, the first step is to purchase an established hive,” Rene explains. “The hive consists of one Queen, or Mother Bee, that lays some 50,000 eggs fertilized by the male Drones. The eggs hatch in twenty-one days to produce a “Worker” or female bee and twenty-four days to produce a ‘Drone’ or male.”
The industrious production of honey is the bee’s life work, and then it dies. It is said that bees work themselves to death. Thus, this story is a tribute to the life of Bees, their contribution to human health, natural crop production, and to their enduring Caretakers, the Apiarists.