A Florida bee keeper humanely removes bees and seasonally sends them to California and Maine to help pollinate crops.

To bee or not to bee? That was the question property manager Jose Rodriguez faced when he found about 30,000 bees living in a banyan tree at the Palm Beach house he manages.

“We have workers on the property, and I’m concerned that somebody without a lot of knowledge may disturb them,” Rodriguez says. “Somebody might get hurt and hurt the bees as well."

Rodriguez had a decision to make: hire someone to kill the bees, like former property managers had done, or try something vastly different.

“I’ve read about the bee population in our country getting smaller and smaller due to contamination and pollution,” he says about opting to look into humane and environmentally sustainable alternatives to killing the bees. But he had no idea where to begin.

Enter Al Salopek, aka “Al the Bee Guy.”

“I found him by error,” Rodriguez says. “A lady that sells honey, she told me about him.”

Salopek looks more like a member of the Beach Boys than a bee wrangler — tall and sturdy with blond hair and an easy smile.

If he has any trepidation over assessing the infestation in Rodriguez’s tree, it doesn’t show.

“I call it my yoga moment,” Salopek says, sticking his face right up to the opening of the hive. “If you’re in the same energy as the bees and relaxed around the bees, the bees will be relaxed around you. If you’re fearful, they are going to be fearful.”

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Salopek should know. He lives with hundreds of beehives and millions of bees on a 13-acre ranch in northwestern Palm Beach County. Many of his bees come from clients, such as Rodriguez, who choose relocation over killing.

A former restaurateur, Salopek now dedicates his time to helping the environment by saving bees. He says he has no interest in honey, and his sole purpose is to help bees thrive. He even leases them to farms in areas with too few for adequate pollination of crops.

“We have to truck in over 2 million beehives every January to pollinate the almonds," he says of the 423 hives he ships annually on a flatbed semi to California as part of national effort to support the industry. He also ships bees each May to Maine to fertilize blueberries.

While it seems like just leaving the bees in areas where they are most needed would solve the problem of too few bees, it just doesn’t work that way, Salopek says.

“Bees stay six to eight weeks, then we bring them back,” he says. “They would starve to death because as soon as the bloom is done, there is nothing left to eat.”

While the food web in America relies heavily on honeybees, they are not a native species, Salopek says. They were originally brought here by European colonizers, and, over time, became the pollinators of choice for American farmers. Today, crops such as apples, cucumbers, broccoli, onions, pumpkins, carrots and avocados will not grow without bees.

Getting stung daily

Salopek’s love for bees is apparent in the careful planning he puts into each bee-removal project. But his passion comes at a cost — he gets stung 50 to 100 times a day.

“That’s normal,” he says. “I've built up a tolerance. But after about 250 [stings], I get tired and lethargic and have to lie down.”

Salopek says that when European honeybees detect a threat, they send out 100 bees to protect the hive by attacking whatever the perceived threat may be. But mixed in with the European honeybees are Africanized honeybees, which are more aggressive and attack in groups of 1,000 — enough stings to kill a 6-foot man, Salopek said.

The problem is, short of DNA testing, there is no way to tell which bees are which, but it’s likely a mixture of the two.

“They’re in almost every feral honey bee colony now because of the mating process of the honeybee,” Salopek says of Africanized honeybees.

Worker bees live only six to eight weeks, and queen bees live three to five years, he said. Hives range in size from 6,000 bees to more than 100,000. A queen will mate only once in her lifetime, partnering with 15 to 20 males in a matter of hours. When a hive grows large enough, the queen leaves to form another hive nearby and a new queen emerges to take over the old hive.

“Bees mark that space with a pheromone, and that smell gets into the wood and will last 3 to 5 years,” Salopek says about the scent, which smells like lemongrass. “You can remove the bees, but then you’re highly susceptible to reinfestation because of the pheromones.”

 

How to remove the bees

Salopek has a variety of techniques to eradicate bees, including a “trap-out,” which involves installing a one-way trap door over a single entry point to the hive. Bees can get out, but they cannot get back in. He then installs a specially designed 10-by-20-inch box nearby, and the ousted bees eventually move into that. The box becomes their new hive and Salopek can then easily transport it to his farm.

Another eradication method is to puff a light, almond oil-scented smoke into the hive. The bees do not like the smell, so they leave the hive and congregate nearby, at which point Salopek sucks them up with a bee vacuum.

Because the hive in the tree at the Rodriguez property has multiple entry points, this method is the most effective. “That is amazing,” Rodriguez says about the five-hour process that does not harm the bees. “I’m so happy; it’s super cool.”

'A web of life'

Salopek, who is vice president of the Florida State Beekeepers Association, is known among local environmentalists. In addition to eradicating bees from eaves, walls, trees and roofs of private residences, he works with The Society of the Four Arts and The Garden Club of Palm Beach.

“We are planting more native plants because bees have co-evolved with native plants and they need them for survival,” says Beth Dowdle, chairperson of the Conservation Committee for the The Garden Club of Palm Beach and avid bee activist.

Dowdle applauds Salopek’s work and says if people want to save bees and other pollinating insects, they should stop using pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and other chemicals on their yards.

“Birds needs insects, so we’re losing our songbirds,” she says about the added problems of chemical use. “And all this stuff goes into our water — those fertilizers and chemicals have a relation to algae blooms and have human impact.”

The Garden Club has published a booklet, which is available through the town planning department, to teach residents how to utilize native plants to attract pollinators like bees.

“It’s a web of life, and we forget that these little tiny creatures are so important to our own lives,” she says.

This story originally published to palmbeachdailynews.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network.