CLEARWATER — Jim Quinlan sits at a table in the shade, surrounded by rows of potted tomato plants, African blue basil, sweet basil, various types of peppers and sunflowers. Several hand-made garden sheds, one topped with a bicycle fashioned into an operating wind sculpture, frame Quinlan’s small, peaceful garden. Hanging bamboo irrigation pipes dripping water on plants adds to the green serenity.
Quinlan, a 65-year-old Michigan native, moved to Florida 23 years ago, his wife, Yvonne, and two sons at his side. He loves cultivating things, but the buzzing secret to his garden is in plain sight: honeybees tumble around the blooms in virtually every corner of the yard, grabbing pollen and doing whatever else honeybees do.
Quinlan, with a friendly and intelligent face under a baseball cap, is chief beekeeper and proprietor of the Florida Bee Farm in Clearwater, producing a hundred pounds of honey a year.
Quinlan keeps a series of bee boxes on a swath of green lawn behind a wall of bamboo trees. As one peers through the bamboo, each box seems covered with a tan mat, a mat that moves and adds and subtracts as individual bees land and take off at each hive.
“When you put on a beekeeping suit and helmet, you move very slowly, like an astronaut, and they don’t become alarmed,” he said of his herd. “You can even take the top off the hive and look inside. It’s amazing how organized their operation is.”
But things can go south should the hive’s guard bees sense danger.
“They turn and emit an alarm pheromone into the air that is a defensive reaction to alert nearby bees,” he said. “But as long as you move calmly and deliberately and don’t swat, you’ll be just fine.”
Quinlan first learned about the uniqueness of honeybees after a wild swarm showed up at the home he and Yvonne — they’ve been married for 37 years — share off Enterprise Road in Countryside.
“In 2013 a swarm took up residence inside one of our walls,” Quinlan says. “We had guests scheduled to visit, so I called a beekeeper to remove them.”
The collector began to educate him about the bees swarming his house. He was fascinated, and being an avid gardener, Quinlan kept the idea of raising honey in the back of his mind.
The idea became reality after he and Yvonne bought the bee farm property at 1924 Strauch Road several months after the swarm showed up at their Countryside house.
“We bought this property and started digging a garden. I thought I’d try to put a few hives out here and give it a try,” he said. “It’s one of those things that draws you in, it sucks you right in. It’s fascinating, all the things bees do.”
Quinlan started small.
“I started with two bee boxes and caught my first swarm myself,” Quinlan says with satisfaction.
How he caught his first mob of honeybees is also at the core of why they fascinate him. To catch a swarm, one must convince its individual members that your tree, or capture box in a tree, is the best place to start a new community, or hive. Once they reach a certain size, the swarm decides to split, so one-half can leave and start a new community.
“When they decide to leave, they send out scout bees to find great areas for a hive,” Quinlan says.
The bee scouts fly to nearly all points of the compass in search of a new location. As each scout returns to the hive, it performs a dance, which the rest of the hive watches with great interest. During what scientists call the waggle dance, the direction the bee moves in relation to the hive indicates direction; depending on other moves, the bee indicates direction in relation to the sun. The duration of the waggle part of the dance signifies the distance, according to North Carolina State Extension Magazine.
Then other scouts dance individually, giving the location of their preferred sites. Each scout bee with an opinion flies off to inspect the other scouts’ choices. They reach consensus as to which site is best, “something humans aren’t able to do,” Quinlan says with irony.
“The scout bees return, and through dance, tell the other bees what they’ve agreed on,” he says. “The intensity of the dance indicates how much they like the place. That's how they communicate, which is fascinating.”
The trick to catching his first swarm, Quinlan says, was to crush lemon grass and rub it on a ball of cotton. The cotton then went into a capture box in a tree. Any scout bees investigating the tree for a new hive location find the lemon grass fragrance attractive.
It only took a couple of days for his first swarm to arrive at his property off Whitney Road. The rest, they say, is the “bee’s knees.” The Florida Bee Farm, with its multiple bee boxes, is part of the national trend of small farmers and producers of natural foods that offer site tours to traveling families.
Quinlan guides bee-suit-wearing families and kids into the hives and honeycomb-producing environment even as bees are at work.
As part of Airbnb’s “Experiences” program, the Quinlans partner with the online lodging community to offer unique travel encounters.
“People can suit up, learn a little about honeybees and go into an active hive with me,” he says. “We offer two experiences — one where people learn a little about bees and go into the hive, and the second encounter is designed for photographers, who can suit up and take photos or video the bees inside the box as they make honey and perform other tasks.”