By Mike Sharkey

If you’ve shopped for honey in the grocery store, you likely noticed there are about half a dozen brands for sale ranging from the store’s generic brand to better-known brands like Sue Bee. But, what you probably didn’t realize is that what’s in the jar is a far cry from honey.

“Store-bought honey comes from all over the world. Every year, millions of tons are imported to the United States and most of it comes from China,” said Bob Poteete, president of the Jacksonville Beekeepers Association. “They filter the good parts out. What you are buying is basically colored syrup.”

Not if you get your honey from Poteete or any one of the other beekeepers in the Northeast Florida area, many of whom belong to Poteete’s club that boasts a membership that spans from Savannah to Palatka.

“We don’t filter our honey; we just get the wax particles out. Our honey still has the pollen particles in it. That’s the good stuff,” said Poteete, who got his start as a beekeeper as a kid in north Georgia watching his great uncle build hives, raise bees and harvest honey. “In the mid 1960s, I met a beekeeper named Redd White. He became the first of my many mentors.”

Today, he’s retired after 35 years as a service manager and calls beekeeping his full-time hobby. Poteete said there’s really no such thing as beekeeping as a hobby.

“Once you keep bees, you are a beekeeper. You are a beekeeper if you have one hive or a 1,000 hives,” he said. “It’s pretty fascinating. Once you get it in your blood, you can’t get it out.”

Poteete said a couple of the great misconceptions about having a beehive is that it’s dangerous and you have to be in a rural area. He explained that once you learn to handle the bees, they are quite tame and there are only a few regulations regarding where you can build and nurture a beehive. You must register your hive and you can’t have one in a deed-restricted community, near a school or playground or near pent-up animals. Otherwise, pretty much anyone can get into beekeeping as a hobby or profession.

“It costs about $225 to $250 to start a beehive. Once you build or buy the box, you start feeding the hive with a sugar-water mix that’s 50/50. Once your honey super (the comb) is about 80 percent full, you can add another super. A strong hive has anywhere from 30,000 to 60,000 bees,” said Poteete, who lives in Orange Park and currently has seven hives and harvests about 40 to 60 pounds of pure honey from each hive. “There are over 2,800 registered beekeepers in Florida and more and more are registering daily.”

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Poteete advises anyone interested in beekeeping should first join a local club. He explained that beekeeping clubs are more about sharing information than anything.

“You will gain a lot of knowledge and the people there will help point you in the right direction,” he said. “They will teach you how to save money and everyone is eager to help.”

The first thing you’ll need to buy is protective gear to include veils and gloves. Poteete says the worst thing someone can do is be “macho” about getting into beekeeping. The reality is, until you are comfortable around the bees (and they are comfortable around you), there is the very real possibility you will get stung – lots of times. Poteete estimated he’s been stung about 5,000 times over the years, but is relatively immune by now.

“If you always work slowly, the bees will leave you alone. You very rarely get stung unless you are taking the hive apart,” said Poteete.

As for finding that pure, local honey Poteete says local farmers markets are the best option, although you can order it online provided the beekeeper has a website. He does recommend to ask the vendor where they got their honey. State law prohibits anyone who isn’t a registered beekeeper from selling local honey.