Building a better beehive

Gary VanCleef, master beekeeper at USF’s Botanical Gardens, has been deeply passionate about bees since he was a kid. Now, he tries to inspire the same interest in others through workshops at the gardens.

In attempt to get more people certified in beekeeping and also to work alongside VanCleef, the USF Botanical Gardens is hosting a series of beekeeping workshops.

VanCleef has admired bees since he joined Boy Scouts at 11 years old and even had a beehive in his bedroom. While many kids might have wanted to stay away from bees, he couldn’t think of anything more fascinating.

“I was in Boy Scouts and they had a beekeeping merit badge that all the other boys stayed away from, but not me … Whenever we went camping there were hives outside and I thought it was so neat,” VanCleef said.

Eventually, he wanted to learn more about his “girls” – a nickname expert beekeepers give their hives – than what he was taught in Boy Scouts.

“I had a neighbor who mentored me in beekeeping, since it’s something that you can’t learn through reading,” he said. “It’s a hands-on learning experience.”

He became the master beekeeper in April and is the only one at the gardens.

VanCleef hopes to encounter other people interested in becoming a certified master beekeeper. Certification is necessary, as beekeeping is illegal without it in the counties surrounding USF.

Kim Hutton, Special Events & Volunteers Coordinator at the Botanical Gardens, is the woman organizing all of the beekeeping workshops and has worked at the gardens for 14 years.

With the plant festival coming up and one more bee workshop left, she keeps busy. In Hutton’s office there is a wall calendar with events written all over it.

“We plan out and think about things that would be of interest and what the community wants,” Hutton said.

She organized the beekeeping workshops to be open and fun for everyone. From students to grandparents, beekeeping isn’t a field that favors any particular demographic.

Nadine Fitch, a lady who was all smiles at the most recent workshop, loved talking about the beehives and how fascinated she is with them.

“My grandson, who is 5 years old, and I built (a beehive) together and we had such a good time,” she said.

“I ordered my (3-pound) beehive online. I was amazed that you could order them from there, but I did and you should have seen the post office people. It was so funny.”

Fitch was one of around 30 people who showed up for the second out of three workshops. She and some others attended the first workshop and had more experience to share, but about half were first-timers.

Whether people bought hives for the workshop from a local beekeeper or from VanCleef, there was one thing people couldn’t stop murmuring: “the honey smells so good.”

Once everyone had his or her turn spinning the extractor, it came time to pour the honey into a jug.

One loose bee had some people waving their arms in fear of being stung, but the people who were more interested and experienced in beekeeping, were not easily intimidated, rather amused with the paranoia.

The Botanical Gardens plans to sell the honey made with its hives when it is ready.

While USF is forever expanding, as well as the cities that surround it, the beehives and the Botanical Gardens as a whole stands as a constant reminder for how fragile environments are becoming.

VanCleef, who brought his wife to the Botanical Gardens for their first date, claims that he loves the gardens because they’re so peaceful and removed from the city.

“They are the most natural thing we have in an urban community” VanCleef said.

The Botanical Gardens are located at the west end of Alumni Drive and are open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday noon to 4 p.m.

With one more workshop on Sept. 26, students and anyone else interested in the art of beekeeping can learn about the hobby and ask questions. Things needed to start a hive can be purchased at the gardens.

Anyone looking to become a master beekeeper can contact Gary VanCleef at Contact Kim Hutton at with any other questions regarding the Botanical Gardens.