Standing in the swamp east of Wewahitchka, Fla. (pop. 1,981), Ben Lanier listens intently to the hum of thousands of honeybees feasting on white tupelo blossoms in the trees overhead.
“Hear the bees?” asks Lanier, 54, looking skyward as the morning sun penetrates the canopy. “That’s a tupelo roar. That’s a pretty sound.”
A third-generation beekeeper, Lanier grew up in his family’s bee yards, helping his father, L.L. Lanier Jr., maintain the hives and extract tons of tupelo honey each spring.
The Lanier family has harvested honey in the Apalachicola River basin since 1898. Ben’s grandfather Lavernor Laveon Lanier Sr. started the bee business with a $500 loan from a local farmer. Ben’s father took over the business in 1953, and Ben assumed management and ownership in 1991.
“I have bees in the same places that my granddaddy did 100 years ago,” says Ben, explaining how beehives must be cleaned and readied each spring for the two-week tupelo bloom.
When the trees blossom between mid-April and early May, Ben ventures into the swamp to check his 800 hives, abuzz with activity. Bees fly in and out of the hives as they gather nectar from the delicate flowers. The industrious insects deposit the sweet liquid in wax honeycomb cells and fan their wings to reduce its moisture content, creating honey.
After the bees have worked their magic, Ben and his hired hand, Justin Sours, 27, transport the honeycombs to Wewahitchka and use a centrifuge to extract the sweet substance, prized for its mild floral flavor, high fructose content and light amber color. The honey is strained through cheesecloth, bottled, and sold by local retailers and via mail order.
“It’s like a fine wine,” says Ben’s wife, Glynnis, 47, who ships honey to customers across the nation. “It has the best flavor and doesn’t granulate like other honeys.”
The biggest challenge of beekeeping is protecting the insects from disease and parasites that can destroy an entire colony, Ben says.
As with most farming, uncertainty about weather is the most nerve-racking part of beekeeping. If it’s too dry, the blossoms don’t produce nectar; strong winds can knock the blossoms off the trees; and if rainstorms dominate during the brief tupelo bloom, the bees can’t gather the nectar.
“It’s always a gamble with the natural elements, not knowing whether you’re going to make a honey crop or not,” Ben says.
Depending on weather and bee productivity, the Laniers harvest up to a hundred 50-gallon barrels of tupelo honey a year. The variety fetches a premium price—as much as $20 a pound—because its production is limited and labor-intensive. White tupelo trees grow in abundance only in the wetlands of the Florida Panhandle and southern Georgia.
“Ben’s the best around at making tupelo honey,” says Warren Johnson, 71, of Hosford, Fla., a fellow beekeeper and retired state bee inspector. “He goes all out raising brood and making new hives.”
Ben’s beekeeping expertise came in handy when he and Glynnis taught actor Peter Fonda how to handle bees for “Ulee’s Gold,” a 1997 film about a third-generation Florida beekeeper struggling to hold his troubled family together. The Lanier family’s bee yards were used as filming locations, and Fonda was stung at least once on the set, Glynnis recalls.
Ben, meanwhile, has been stung numerous times, yet he never wears gloves or special protective clothing. He wears a bee veil over his head only when he’s moving hives or harvesting honey.
“I don’t know any better,” he says, as bees swarm around his head. “That’s the way my daddy and granddaddy did it.”
As for the family’s tupelo tradition, Ben doesn’t know whether his son, Heath, 8, will continue the business. “I’m not going to push him into anything,” he says. “If he wants some bees, we’ll get him some bees.”