If you walk the streets of downtown Tampa and spot a few bees buzzing around the flowers and crepe myrtles, there's a good chance those bees belong to Paul Maney, and those bees live in a hive sitting on the roof of Maney's downtown law firm office.
The full-time family-law lawyer has become a part-time beekeeper. And with lots of help from his daughters and wife, Maney has become perhaps the only agricultural operation amid the skyscrapers of downtown, with Tampa Urban Honey starting to appear on a few grocery store shelves.
“The city may have no idea why all the crepe myrtles are flourishing so much around my office,” Maney said, pointing to his rooftop. “But those are my bees pollinating all over them.”
Tampa's hyperlocal food producers are nowhere near as advanced or diverse as urban farming hotspots like Brooklyn or San Francisco. There are a few local egg producers. There is Healthy Heritage that supplies meat to local farmers markets, and The Dancing Goat operation supplies goat milk and cheese. The Poor Old Webber's Land & Sea market has a wide collection of veggies, meats and dairy from Florida producers.
But for the downtown area, the Tampa Urban Honey company could hardly get more local. Maney's honey is for sale at several local markets, including the independent Duckweed Urban Market at the base of the Element residential tower downtown. And it's commanding a nice price: $8 for an 8-ounce bottle and $15 for a 1-pound bottle — all from a hive that produces 100 to 200 pounds of honey a year — with the proceeds going into a college fund for Maney's daughters.
Maney grew up in Hyde Park helping his older brother keep a hive, and he recently caught the bug of urban farming. For a time, he kept a hive on the balcony of his condo on Harbour Island. That's until a painting project on the building (and his neighbors) encouraged him to move the hive. What might seem like a perilous task simply required wrapping blankets around the hive structure (with the bees inside) and carrying it to the roof of his office on East Madison Street. Nearly all the bees learned the new location, but the few that returned to the condo he tried to collect and relocate.
Maney and his family have learned a lot about the myths and truths of bees. Yes, each hive has only one queen. Newborn bees function as “nurses” to nearby larvae until they're old enough to become “guard” bees to protect the hive entrance, and then they become “harvesters” that fly around in search of nectar.
The harvesters will hover in front of the hive in a cross pattern over and over to imprint the image of their hive's location to find their way back home. Yes, honeybees sting. Their natural foes are weather, disease, birds and dragonflies, which can carry a bee off to feed on it.
An average size hive may hold 20,000 to 60,000 bees. Honeybees aren't territorial, so an area like downtown may have bees from many hives, and bees will fly 1 to 3 miles in search of nectar.
Maney's bees cycle among the flowers around the Channel District, the mangroves around Harbour Island, the trees of Seminole Heights and the bottlebrush flowers downtown, with each phase infusing the honey with a distinct flavor. A current batch on store shelves was likely harvested by the bees this spring, and it has such a dark color and flavor that it almost resembles molasses.
There's a widespread belief among adherents of the homeopathic movement that eating locally produced honey helps with allergies. Because the honey has trace elements of pollen compounds, that helps the body grow accustomed to the chemical makeup of nearby pollen without triggering an allergic reaction. That's also why honey from bees in orange groves tastes different than honey from wildflower fields or downtown Tampa. Unfortunately for people who suffer amid clouds of oak pollen, bees tend not to favor oak trees.
Another myth: Puffing smoke around a hive as beekeepers do doesn't stun bees. Rather, the scent tricks bees into thinking a forest fire is near so they better hunker down to “wait for the signal to bug out,” Maney said.
That's the time to harvest the honeycombs, which Maney pulls out, using a hot knife to delicately slice a layer of wax that holds the honey in the comb. With a makeshift centrifuge, he spins the honey out for filtering and bottling. Even the various rows in the honeycomb will have different flavors as the bees are collecting nectar from different flowers through the year.
To help out “newbees” to the local honey movement, there's a Florida State Beekeepers Association, with a local chapter in Seffner that holds seminars and meetings every second Tuesday. A few local beekeepers have businesses transporting hives as far away as California and New England as a portable pollination service for farmers.
Meanwhile, the home beekeeping movement has grown so sophisticated that you can buy a pack of bees, a queen bee and hive starter kit for less than $100 online — and yes, the bees travel live through the U.S. mail. Recent changes in Florida law have opened the door to more “cottage” agricultural projects such as beekeeping.
Maney's daughters are big helpers in the project, which involves preparing the jars, labeling the lids and counting the money. Increasing production would mean adding more hives, Maney said, something he has considered. Given that the Duckweed market sold out of his honey last week, that may influence his decision to keep up with demand.