MONTICELLO – There were bees in the kitchen at Tony and Becky Hogg’s Jefferson County farm on Wednesday. The Hoggs were unconcerned — they have been keeping bees for 15 years.

They, like many other experts, know the importance of bees. They attribute every third bite of their food to bee pollination.

In their five-acre yard, they have 100 hives. That means 3 to 5 million bees have homes on the property.

The Hoggs began keeping bees about 15 years ago to combat their daughter’s phobia of insects. Now, Tony is the president of the Florida State Beekeepers Association.

He and Becky own and operate Full Moon Farm, though Tony also works as a docking pilot in Jacksonville. On his off weeks, he helps Becky, whom he fondly refers to as the “executive director,” move and manage the 250 hives they own. Their operation is two-fold – honey and pollination.

“For most practical purposes, (honey and pollination) are two entirely different operations,” Tony said. “Most of the stuff that we pollinate, we don’t produce honey off of.”

The bees the Hoggs’ rent out pollinate blueberry crops, watermelon, squash and cotton — just to name a few of the crops integral to Florida’s agriculture.

Last year, 400 semi-truckloads of hives left Florida for almond pollination in California, Tony said. It takes about 1.7 million bee colonies to pollinate the almond crop in California each year alone.

Yet the increase in monoculture — growing a single crop at a time — poses a problem for bee health. That’s because some flowers, like watermelon, do not offer bees much nectar, a bee’s energy source. Hogg sometimes has to supplement food (sugar water) for the bees to eat.

The state of Florida is beginning to recognize the importance of bees to agriculture and is making an effort to plant wildflower nurseries like those seen in highway and interstate medians.

“You know, I like my watermelons,” Tony joked this week.

Joking aside, the issue is serious. He believes bee health is as important to human life as the sun  — and bees are in trouble.

It’s not Colony Collapse Disorder, the panic-inducing phrase that swept through the news in the mid-2000s, but just a general decline, Tony said.

“It used to be that most of your bee losses you’d experience in the winter time,” he said,  “but now we’re having our losses pretty much divided up equally in summer and winter.”

Radio journalist and Tallahassee beekeeper Rick Flagg agreed. Flagg is a member of the Apalachee Beekeepers Association, a Tallahassee-based division of the Florida State Beekeepers, and has been keeping bees in Frenchtown for seven years.

“Everything we do to (bees) is their biggest threat,” Flagg said. “We destroy their food source simply by mowing down what we do not like to look at.”

So it is with relief and anticipation that the University of Florida is breaking ground in September on a project to build a Honey Bee Research & Extension Lab on its campus in Gainesville.

“The bee lab gives Florida the chance to make its mark in bee research,” said Flagg.

The project, which was vetoed twice by Gov. Rick Scott, was approved last year and UF was allocated $2 million; the university will provide a $500,000 matching grant. Tony Hogg said Florida beekeepers have raised an additional $800,000 through donations. The effort has gained international attention.

“They are some real movers and shakers,” said Hogg. “Beekeepers in Tallahassee have really ponied up and invested not only a lot of money, but a lot of time in making (the project) happen.”

UF is ranked No. 1 in entomology worldwide, and Florida’s climate enables bee research year round.

“This is really the only kind of place this could be pulled off,” said Jamie Ellis, an associate professor of entomology at UF. “It (will be) a state of the art research and instructional facility. It’s a really remarkable grassroots movement, and very humbling to watch this come together.”

Hogg is thrilled the lab will finally have a home.

“The problems are growing and growing and we need to have answers sooner rather than later,” he said. “We’re all wondering what’s going to be the next calamity that faces us.

“It will be a bright day for Florida and for the beekeeping industry across this country to have the bee lab built down there.”