The smell that hits you when you walk into Sarasota Honey Co.—located in a brightly painted blue building off Orange Avenue in north Sarasota—is a heady one, sweet and floral. You’ll find bottles of raw, locally harvested honey, beeswax candles and other bee- and honey-related gift items. A little farther back, there’s an open room where owner Alma Johnson conducts her bee tours and workshops.
Johnson, a former disabilities advocate for children, fell in love with beekeeping after she was diagnosed with cervical cancer at age 30. Once she’d beaten the disease, she grew a victory garden in her back yard to celebrate, and then decided to get some honeybees to help pollinate the plants. Johnson’s husband, Glenn, asked her what she wanted to do next. “I want to work with bees and work with [disabled] kids,” she replied.
Johnson now tends to hives from Anna Maria Island to downtown Sarasota. She travels from hive to hive collecting the raw honey, which is bottled and labeled by kids at Haven Industries—a community for people with disabilities—then sold at Sarasota Honey Co. and at local shops and farmers’ markets.
It’s a labor of love for Johnson, who affectionately refers to the bees as her “little girls.”
Every Thursday and Friday, she holds free classes about the benefits of bees and beekeeping. Students get to visit Johnson’s apiary behind the building and taste three types of honey that she’s harvested. Johnson simply asks that people RSVP on Facebook, although walk-ins are welcome.
In addition to her weekly classes, Johnson organizes an annual Honey Bee Festival, which features her products as well as those from local farms and producers. The festival was canceled last year because of Hurricane Irma; this year, she’s planning a “Boo Bee Fest” in October, with proceeds benefiting female cancer research.
“After what I went through with my health, I learned the importance of locally grown foods,” she says. “I know how much blood, sweat and tears go into it. I want to do my part. Our goal is to continue to educate the public.”
Honey, Did You Know?
Sarasota and Manatee are home to 50 commercial beekeepers and 80 hobbyists.
Florida ranks No. 4 as a honey-producing state.
One bee produces two-tenths of a teaspoon of honey in its 30- to 60-day lifespan. It requires 22,700 bees to fill a jar of honey, and each hive contains 30,000 to 60,000 bees.
Great local nectar sources: In May and June, orange blossoms, blueberries, palmetto palm, cabbage palm, sea grapes, mangroves (“very important for honey bees”); in the summer, palm trees.
Honey bees love the invasive Brazilian pepper, which flowers in the fall. Southwest Florida is the best region in the country for this plant, and beekeepers from all over the United States bring thousands of hives here to feast on its nectar. “It’s one of the largest honey flows in the U.S.,” says Alma Johnson. “In the summer, bees produce a box of honey in three months. During Brazilian pepper season, they make the same amount in 10 to 12 days.”