A conversation with Allen Walker one January morning calls to mind an old children’s rhyme: “I know an old lady who swallowed a fly …” The woman went on to consume a spider to eat the fly, a bird to eat the spider, a cat to swallow the bird, and on up the food chain.
And so it is with the bees that Allen has tended for more than 50 years. “I wish people understood our entire food chain starts with bees,” he says. A bee pollinates a flower; a bug crawls in to enjoy the pollen; a bigger bug eats the first; a bird swoops in after that. Not to mention all the plants that can’t produce fruits, seeds and nuts without the help of bees. “The whole chain ends up with us,” Allen says. “Without bees, we don’t survive.”
Allen and his wife, Joyce, own Walker Farms in North Fort Myers, where they have harvested the honey bees produce from Southwest Florida native plants—wildflowers, orange blossoms, black mangroves and saw palmetto—since 1970. All four varieties come from plants within a 60-mile radius: Pine Island mangroves, Alva orange groves, wildflowers and saw palmetto in the woods near their home. The nectar yields distinct colors and flavors. Black mangrove honey is deep in color, like maple syrup, with woody undertones. The orange blossom, by contrast, is as bright as Florida sunshine and tastes as though it’s been infused with juice. No two batches of Walker Farms Honey are the same. How could they be? The plants are forever changing, the composition of wild-growing bouquets—unpredictable. The bees might toss in a little buttonwood from a strand growing near the mangroves. In the fall, they blend nectar from some eight to 10 species of wildflowers. “The bees mix it for me,” Allen says. “We give you Mother Nature’s stuff.”
Walker isn’t one for making speeches, but he’ll jump on a soapbox if you ask him about his concerns. “The world is really rough on bees right now,” he says, blaming pesticides and climate change for the loss of so many insects. He’s learned to protect and nurture them by detecting and treating viruses, eliminating mites, inoculating bees and assisting unproductive hives by raising and installing new queens.
Allen, who is now 78 years old, was born in North Fort Myers and delved into beekeeping for a Boy Scout project when he was 12. A neighbor, Harry Hill (“I remember him to this day!”), offered to sell him two beehives for $5 each. “I went back to pay him, and he said, ‘Nuh-uh. You can’t pay me in money. You need to pay me in honey.’”
Soon after, Allen presented Harry with two jars. In 1968, he decided to turn his hobby into a full-time profession.“I was his honey until, all of a sudden, he mentioned he wanted to be back in the bee business again,” Joyce quips. “I didn’t know there was a thing!”
Two years later, the couple moved to their wooded, 7.5-acre property off Slater Road in North Fort Myers. Allen built the structures by hand: the rustic retail store, the adjacent production facility (known as a honey house), the storage area, the home where they raised their two daughters. One of them, Penny, operates Just Bee Brands and sells her handmade, honey-infused soaps and related products at her parents’ shop.
The Walkers’ production method is the same one that’s been used for centuries, with a few modern indulgences—most notably, a forklift that saves Allen from hauling and hoisting beehives and barrels as he once did. The process works like this: Beekeepers set up hives amid flowering plants. The hives contain multiple removable frames upon which the insects build honeycombs. These days, Allen hires three other beekeepers to set up the hives in groves, shorelines, and forests and transport them back to his farm once the bees have filled them with liquid gold. In his younger years, he managed 1,500 hives on his own.
At the honey house, a motorized blade shaves the beeswax seal, releasing cells of honey. A centrifuge extracts the liquid from the combs. As orders come in, Allen uses simple machinery to lift and pour the honey from storage barrels into a 2,500-pound capacity vat. The honey is warmed to 110 degrees, which makes it easier to strain any lingering comb particles and pour into bottles. The Walkers don’t filter the honey because they want to capture the local pollen that boosts immunity and minimizes allergies. The couple hires one helper to pour the honey from the vat into bottles, hundreds at a time. Joyce labels each one. “Think of me if you get a crooked label!” she says.
The couple produces approximately 250 barrels a year, each containing 650 pounds of local honey. Last year yielded less; storms, like Hurricane Ian, changing climate conditions and development continue to affect bee populations and productivity. Still, you can find Walker goods populating independent grocers, specialty stores and farmers’ markets across Lee, Collier, Charlotte and Hendry Counties.
“We like to think we continue putting bees into this world of ours that’s taking them out as fast as we can put them in,” Allen says. He points to a sign above a rack of local honey. “There’s my favorite sign,” he says. It reads: “Listen to the bees and let them guide you.”