WEWAHITCHKA, Fla. (AP) _ Busy humming broken by a hard tapping fills the clearing. Bees at work, and Ben Lanier loosening their honeycombs from weathered boxes.
He harvests this tupelo honey only once a year, just after the white tupelo gum trees blossom in the swamps along the Apalachicola River.
Some of the box lids Lanier pries open are still black from the carbolic acid his grandfather poured on them to repel the bees while he worked decades ago. Lanier sprays the same lids with smoke or an almond concoction called ``bee goo,'' according to the handwriting on the bottle. The smell makes the eyes sting.
Still, the bees hover around the boxes stacked on a trailer hitched to his pickup truck. A sure sign of drought, Lanier says. If the river was high, if there was nectar flowing anywhere else, the bees would not mind so much him stealing their honey.
Half his honey crop might not turn up this year, but at least his bees have not vanished like they have elsewhere around the country.
Tupelo honey is the pride of this one-stoplight Florida Panhandle town. When Van Morrison sang about a girl ``as sweet at tupelo honey, just like honey from the bee,'' this is why: true tupelo honey from these parts is poured into bottles unheated, unprocessed, virtually unchanged from the hive.
Wooden signs at either end of the main street through ``Wewa'' direct drivers to Gulf County's major beekeepers. They sell their honey from their front porches, in a part of Florida that speaks with a Southern accent. It's a quiet drive down a near-empty two-lane road through forests and fields, a long ways away from the paved-over tourist track on the peninsula.
The main road cuts across the Dead Lakes, the spectral stumps of choked-off cypress tress dotting the watery landscape between the riverbanks and the Gulf of Mexico. Most reservoirs in the region could also be called dead, with little or no rain and too shallow to head off the brush fires scorching neighboring counties. What water is left mixes with bitterness over the water demands of development as far north as Atlanta.
``Atlanta's holding all the water,'' Lanier's wife, Glynnis, says from behind the black netting covering her face and neck.
``It's not all Atlanta's fault,'' says Lanier, his face shrouded but his hands bare. ``It's just dry weather. The whole world is burning up.''
Whatever the reason, the water's not there, and the white tupelo bloomed late with little nectar. Lanier marked the first blossoms with an exclamation point in his journal April 29: ``Tupelo blooming!'' There is no punctuation mark of elation in his May 2 entry, ``Tupelo flowing,'' when the papery honeycombs started to fill.
By the time the round flower clusters dried out five days later, Wewa's beekeepers were expecting just half a crop. Less water might mean richer and thicker honey, but these two weeks of tupelo honey harvest between April and May keep them in business the rest of the year, and they were finding their bee boxes too light.
Don Smiley expects only half the 5,500 gallons of tupelo honey his 600 colonies of bees made for Smiley Apiaries last year _ a loss he estimates at $200,000. It wholesales for $5 to $10 a pound, and he estimates the decline at 26,000 pounds.
``It could have been better if we'd had some water,'' Smiley says. ``I'll be doing good if I do 50 (55-gallon) drums. I need at least 100 drums to supply my customers.''
Lanier has about a thousand boxes stacked at 15 bee yards near the river swamps. Each box weighs about 80 pounds when full of honey, but on the first day of honey harvesting, he finds most boxes half-empty.
White tupelo trees never stray far from the Apalachicola's edge, and for three generations neither have the Laniers.
L.L. Lanier Sr. started keeping bees on platforms raised 10 feet above the river in 1898, hauling the honey away by steamboat. His son, also L.L. Lanier, saw the steamboats replaced by barges.
``I wish we had videos of that because it's all gone,'' Ben Lanier says, ``not just the steamboats, but the boats we used, the Crosby Sleds and Boston Whalers and stuff like that we used, not for pleasure, to move honey. We worked with them, but it was four times as much work to take it off the river.''
He'll drive the honey out of this bee yard, the first to be harvested this year. A bee smoker in one hand and a flat, honeycombing-loosening hive tool in a back pocket, he works his way up and down two rows of pale, peeling bee boxes stacked three and four high.
The family history is in this clearing, just uphill and out of sight of the white tupelo trees: Box lids from L.L. Lanier Sr.'s beekeeping days, the rusted frame of a car of his father's cousin who ran moonshine from a nearby still. Ben Lanier first visited this yard when he was 5. He doesn't know if his own son, 3 1/2-year-old Heath, will follow the tradition of gambling a year's income on a few weeks of tupelo blooms and honey.
Lanier pulls out a honeycomb, peels back an amber corner and offers a taste fresh from the hive. Nothing tastes sweeter.