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Decreased Water Flow In The Apalachicola River Could Threaten The Future Of Tupelo Honey

A man bends over a stack of wooden bee boxes. Green trees and grass are in the background.
Regan McCarthy
Ben Lanier has been keeping bees and producing tupelo honey for most his life. He learned from his father and his grandfather before him.

The Apalachicola Bay is well-known for its oysters. But over the years as population, agriculture and management practices have led to less water flowing down the river that feeds the bay, the industry has started to collapse. What some might not realize is oysters aren’t the only industry depending on that water. The trees that make Florida’s famous tupelo honey also need water flowing through the Apalachicola River to survive.

“Apalachicola is 106.5 miles long. That’s from right where Jim Woodruff dam is to the Gulf of Mexico.”

Dan Tonsmeire recently retired from his long held-post as Apalachicola River Keeper. He’s given the reigns over to the new river keeper, Georgia Ackerman. But throughout the hand-off Tonsmeire has worked to teach Ackerman all the ins and outs of the river. That’s what he’s doing on this day, while WFSU reporter Rob Diaz de Villegas tags along.

Tonsmeire and Ackerman are making their way through what Tonsmeire calls a “quintessential tupelo swamp.” It’s one of many along the edges of the river. The ground is made up of a mush muck. It’s an area that would typically flood as the level of the Apalachicola River rises. But over the last several decades the area hasn’t seen as many floods. And that’s having an impact on the floodplain forest, as Tonsmeire points out.

“This is an older tree and you can see it’s breaking down, falling down, so the older trees are dying out, but there’s no real young tupelo coming in,” Tonsmeire says. “So the hardwoods can come in if it stays dry long enough, but then when the floods come through it kills them, so the floodplain forest is thinning out.”

And that thinning of the trees in tupelo swamps raises concerns for people who’ve spent their lives making tupelo honey.

Bees on a frame from a bee box
Regan McCarthy
These bees are working hard to make honey that the Laniers will harvest later.

Glynnis and Ben Lanier run a tupelo honey business in Wewahitchka, between the Apalachicola and Chipola Rivers. Their family has been harvesting tupelo honey in what Ben calls “the Apalachicola River swamps” since 1898. The family has become well known for its honey and even helped consult for a movie about bee keeping—Ulee’s Gold, filmed back in 1997.

Trees growing in a wet swampy area
Regan McCarthy
The Lanier family takes their bees to the Swamps of the Apalachicola River, like this one, to feed on the tupelo trees nearby.

The Laniers make their honey, what some call “liquid gold,” by taking their bees out into the swamp land the family owns while the tupelo trees are blooming.

“The majority of these trees that really produce are hundreds of years old and they’re right out in the bog—I mean right out in the swamp,” Ben Lanier says.

But the trees depend on water flowing into the floodplains to thrive. Glynnis says the river hasn’t been as high as it used to be.

Lower river levels mean less water flowing into the floodplain. That makes it harder for young tupelo trees to grow and can contribute to the collapse of older trees. Researchers have found decreased water flow has led to a significant decrease in tupelo trees in the area. Those trees are the key to making Florida’s famous tupelo honey.

“They’re just naturally hollow, a lot of them are,” Ben Lanier says. “And they’re as big around as this kitchen table we’re sitting at and hollow and I’m care-taker of five or six hundred acres of them we own—wet land, as long as we pay the taxes on it. The deed says U.S. government lot… but I’ve paid the taxes on it for 100 years me and my daddy and my granddaddy.”

Water flow isn’t the only thing that’s making the tupelo honey business a little tougher than it used to be. Competition from out of state beekeepers coming into the area means more bees competing for the same flowers. Hurricane Michael also created complications by damaging some of the trees—something Glynnis says the trees are still suffering from judging by their shorter blooming season this year. And now there’s the impacts of the coronavirus. In her most recent online update Glynnis says the family is now offering drive up services in an effort to keep sales up. She hopes to keep the business going while Ben teaches their son all he knows about the bees. He’ll be the fourth generation of Lanier men to take up the trade.