In the rural areas of Gulf County, Florida, white tupelo trees rise from the waters along the banks of the Chipola and Apalachicola rivers and throughout the Dead Lakes.
This region is said to have the largest concentration of these trees on Earth. Each year, the trees and the blooms they produce set off a flurry of activity that has been part of Northwest Florida culture for generations. “The bloom,” as it is called, creates “the flow”—resulting in the golden delicacy known as tupelo or swamp honey.
Although the tupelo tree also grows in southern Georgia and, to a lesser degree, outside these two regions, the southern cypress swamp is the only ecosystem that supports a large concentration of the trees. As a result, pure raw tupelo honey is rare and almost always originates here.
“There are more than 300 varieties of honey in the United States, but tupelo honey is really only made in two places,” says Brian Bertonneau, owner of Smiley Honey in Wewahitchka.
Most consider the small town of Wewahitchka, less than 30 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, as the epicenter of tupelo honey production.
“There are dozens of beekeepers here who range from 20 hives to 3,000 hives,” Brian says. “There’s a lot of activity in the area. It’s important to the industry and important to the economy for sure.”
Gary Adkison—who with his wife, Pam Palmer, owns Blue-Eyed Girl Honey—is one of those Wewahitchka beekeepers. Their business includes both beekeeping and honey sales.
Though the Gulf County native came to it as a second career, Gary feels a calling to beekeeping and the connection to nature it provides him. He has a profound appreciation for those who came before him.
“Beekeeping has been part of our town’s tradition for a long time,” Gary says, noting several multigenerational operations in the area. “Ben Lanier and his family’s business is the predominant name that comes up whenever we talk about tupelo honey.”
The Lanier family owns L.L. Lanier & Sons Tupelo Honey. It has been in business since 1898, spanning five generations.
Those pioneers opened the door for people like Brian and Gary.
“Smiley Honey was started by Donald Smiley in 1989,” Brian explains. “Like all great American startups, he started out of his garage working part time. At the height of his operations, I think he got up to 1,000 beehives. But he was doing it all. He was doing the beekeeping and the bottling and the marketing and the sales.”
Brian took over bottling, wholesale and retail operations when Donald sold the business in 2011. He ships to all 50 states.
“I buy honey primarily from local and regional beekeepers—Florida and Georgia,” he says, noting he does buy honey from other areas to add to the variety of his retail and wholesale options.
He says tupelo is by far his most popular offering. He sells it in its most natural form: raw and unfiltered.
“The nice thing about raw and unfiltered honey is you’ve preserved how the bees made it, so you still get all those flavors and nuances—and that’s pretty cool,” Brian says.
The process of bottling raw, unfiltered honey allows the “good stuff” to remain, he says. The honey is heated only enough to allow it to flow through the bottling process. Wax and incidental particles are filtered out, but nothing else.
Each crop is produced once a year, when the tupelo trees bloom in mid-April.
“It’s only about two weeks a year,” Pam says, “and you want what beekeepers call a strong flow. That means bees are getting lots of nectar at one time rather than the blooms coming slowly over a long period of time.”
Brian agrees tupelo has a tight window.
“You’ve got about three weeks max, and it has to be perfect weather conditions to make a good crop,” he notes.
Getting that crop means getting the bees as close to the tupelo blooms as possible. The aim is to get the highest concentration of tupelo nectar—to the exclusion of any other nectar. With trees growing only in swamps and wetlands, it is a challenge.
“It’s hard to get your bees in there,” Brian says. “In the old days, they would actually build barges and tie them to the riverbank, and then they’d ferry their bees back and forth from the nearest boat dock out to their tied-up barges.
“Most of the beekeepers today either own or lease land that’s on higher ground within a reasonable distance to sources of tupelo trees. Those are called bee yards. Some bee yards have been in families for generations, and they’ll never give them up. A prized bee yard during tupelo season—that’s like Manhattan real estate. That’s good stuff.”
Pam says Blue-Eyed Girl has used barges on the Apalachicola and Chipola rivers, “but you also get just as good honey if you have your bees in yards on the bank. You can get your bees there by truck that way.”
Gary notes some local bee yards are leased to out-of-town keepers who come in just for the season.
He is proud to do what he loves year-round in his hometown, and hopes to continue building his business and playing a role in keeping the tradition alive.
“We are small and we are local,” he says. “We are using the resources in our hometown to try and make a living.
“Gulf County sustains about 2,000 to 3,000 hives year-round. During tupelo season, our county alone will have a quarter of a million hives of bees.”
Gary hopes local production will increase, keeping the honey and its economic benefits in the county.
Pam—a retired educator—notes the importance of finding next-generation locals to continue the tradition.
“We would love to see young people take an interest in beekeeping,” she says. “We try to mentor any who show an interest. There is such an opportunity.”
Gary says he doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty, being stung by the bees or doing the hard work it takes to produce one of the region’s most sought-after products.
Brian and his staff at Smiley Honey appreciate those efforts and sacrifices—and the superior product that results.
“It takes a lot more effort and work,” Brian says of the tupelo honey harvest, “but it’s worth it because once you taste it, then you understand why people just love it so much. It’s an amazing flavor profile.”