When Gene Petys wanted to learn more about beekeeping, his latest hobby, one of the places he approached was the University of South Florida.
But instead of calling on the biology department or enrolling in entomology classes, Petys several years ago went to the USF Botanical Gardens, where he and anyone else who wants to dabble with their own honeybee colony can learn from an expert.
Gardens staffers have organized an annual beekeeping workshop that is open to the public for hands-on learning in the Gardens' own apiary. The year-long series of once-a-month sessions began Saturday at the Gardens, on the southwest corner of the campus near Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and USF Pine Drive.
Participants can sign up for a single class or as many as they want, even if they missed the introductory session.
"The USF thing is probably the greatest thing in the world to start off with for someone who wants to get into bees," Petys said.
The beekeeping end of the operation is being supervised by Brent Weisman, an anthropology professor and longtime hobbyist who is volunteering for the non-academic duty. Weisman follows Gary Van Cleef, who recently took a job as an apiary inspector with the state.
Van Cleef started the USF apiary after being called to control a swarm of bees in a tree near the campus library five years ago. He boxed the swarm and moved it to the botanical gardens.
The honeybee colony makes a "nice companion" to the USF gardens, said Weisman.
The bees pollinate plants in the USF garden as well as other plants within a two- or three-mile radius. There are now 13 hives, each of which can contain 40,000 bees during the peak activity months of April and May. Raw honey produced in the garden and by local residents who have worked with USF is for sale in the garden shop.
The workshops are part of a community outreach effort focusing on environmental science through the Gardens, said director Laurie Walker. "We as a garden have been able to talk about the plight of the bees, and emphasize best management practices and sustainable gardening," she said. About 60 enrolled for the first session.
Many of those who enroll in the workshops have never kept bees before or have tried unsuccessfully. "So we're trying to take them step-by-step through what it takes to keep bees, what kind of insects bees are, how they behave, what their biology is," Weisman said.
All of that is necessary to manage a successful colony. And it's reflected in the subject matter tackled each month: Saturday's "basics" class, next month's course on apiary setup and pest management, and, down the road, swarm control, queen rearing and honey extraction.
"To be a successful beekeeper, you need to be informed, you need to understand about bees, you need to understand enough about plants and botany to know what's blooming and what's expected to bloom, and you need to know basic management of pest control," Weisman said.
And the best way to learn is with others who share your common interest, he added.
That view is endorsed by Petys, an inveterate tinkerer who also lists woodworking and welding as hobbies, on top of his job as a certified electrical sign contractor. He's immersed himself in beekeeping enough so he now helps teach the newcomers.
"You can't get too much information," said Petys, who is also a member of the Tampa Bay Beekeeping Club. "Every place you go, you are constantly learning."
The monthly workshops are $10 for the general public and $8 for Botanical Gardens members. For information, call (813) 974-2329 or visit gardens.usf.edu.