All posts by Rob

About Rob

Rob Diaz de Villegas is a senior producer and editor for WFSU-TV. Rob covers ecology, managing the National Science Foundation funded In the Grass, On the Reef project. Previously, Rob produced and directed WFSU’s music program, outloud. He has also produced a number of ecology and music related documentaries and was selected the PBS Producers Workshop, a program that grooms up-and-coming producers to create programs for national broadcast.

Saint Joseph Bay scallop, shucked and ready to eat

Shucking a Saint Joseph Bay Scallop: Video

Wednesday, August 20th, at 7:30 pm ET: WFSU premieres the eighth season of Dimensions.  Tune in to watch our Saint Joseph Bay scalloping EcoAdventure.  We snorkel  seagrass beds, see some fun critters, and breathe underwater with the Snuba.  We also eat some tasty scallops.  But you can’t taste these guys if they’re still in their shells.  Below, Captain Bobby Guilford of Break-A-Way Charters shows us how to shuck our catch.  Captain Bobby took us out on the water in July, and he gave us this quick demo:

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Another season of EcoAdventures is so close we can almost taste it.  Next week, it’ll taste like bay scallops as we return to Saint Joseph Bay not for science, but to enjoy the products of the seagrass bed ecosystem.  Saint Joe Bay is of course where we’ve been partnering with Dr. Randall Hughes to explore the inner workings of salt marshes and seagrass beds.  Just a bunch of grass?  Not if you like seafood.  Randall will have more about what she’s learned from Saint Joe Bay next week.

P1060980This summer we also spent some time with the WFSU/ FSU Mag Lab SciGirls.  Their annual two week whirlwind through the many aspects of science takes them on a few choice EcoAdventures of their own.  We accompany them to Tall Timbers Research Station as they get to know pine flatwoods ecology in the best way possible- by trapping birds and handling snakes, of course!  Our area is blessed with some of the best examples of longleaf pine forest, an ecosystem that thrives with fire.  We’ll see how various animal species (like those birds and snakes) benefit from burning.

Pied billed grebe at Wakulla SpringsWe also soak the SciGirls in our Water Moves game.  In our last video centering on the game, we followed water from urban Tallahassee to Wakulla Springs, passing through troubled waterways Munson Slough and Lake Munson.  That piece spent most of its time on the game and learning about the Leon County side of the Wakulla Springs watershed.  In our upcoming video, we visit Wakulla Springs itself.  It is an ecological marvel that’s had it’s share of troubles, but can still wow you with impressive sites and an abundance of wildlife.

And there’s more to come.  This year it’s all about connectivity- between lands and waters, between people and the natural spaces around them.  You can see from our new video open that we’ve seen some cool stuff over the last few years.  What would you like to see coming up?

In next week’s video, Captain Bobby also shucks one of these…

Dr. Randall Hughes holds large clam in St. Joe Bay

Keep up with the latest posts, environmental coverage from the WFSU News department and more at @wfsuIGOR.

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Lake Report: Leon County’s Cleanest and Dirtiest Lakes

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Last week on our Water Moves EcoAdventure, we showed images of polluted waterways south of Tallahassee. We in this area benefit from a large amount of protected lands, which surround us with scenic views as well as protect many of our rivers and streams.  But Tallahassee itself is fairly urban; our paved roadways move pollutants into drainage ditches and sloughs instead of letting them sink into the ground to be filtered by the aquifer.  Some waterways are more affected than others.  Our lakes and rivers provide us with fresh fish and recreation; when they become compromised by algal blooms and other pollutants, they affect the health and economy of the communities around the resources.

With that in mind, I’ve compiled this list of lakes in the area, with data for each on cleanliness and safety concerns. We’re looking at three things:

  1. Nutrient load for each lake. We’ll link to a PDF of a report published by Leon County Public Works, which was compiled by Johnny Richardson (who we interviewed in the Water Moves video). I can’t link to the individual pages, but I will list them with the link back to the document if you’re interested in reading more.
  2. How safe is it to eat the fish in each lake? For this, I’m using a report created by the Florida Department of Health (DOH). This is also a PDF, and I’ll be referencing it in the same way.
  3. Toxic algal blooms. DOH has an Algal Bloom tracker which lists three locations in Leon County. During the rainy season, these blooms will get flushed, but the locations listed have had persistent nutrient problems and are still a risk to bloom when the weather dries.

North Leon: The Red Hills

Our largest lakes are located in the north of the county.  This is a sparsely populated area, protected to the north by over 300,000 acres of forested land held on hunting plantations.  Our recent Red Hills EcoAdventure explored some of these waterways and the land protecting them.  These are the cleanest lakes in Leon County.

Lake Iamonia (5,554 acres, the largest lake in Leon County)

Florida Fish & Wildlife's Michael Hill takes me out on Lake Iamonia near tall Timbers Research Station.

Florida Fish & Wildlife’s Michael Hill takes me out on Lake Iamonia near Tall Timbers Research Station.

Nutrients: The report we cite was issued by Leon County in 2011.  The report uses a measurement developed by FDEP, called a Trophic State Index, to determine the health of a waterbody.  It’s a formula that weighs nutrient levels (phosphorous, nitrogen, and chlorophyl a), with a score of 60 or higher denoting an impaired waterbody (40 for clearwater lakes, which are lower nutrient systems).  Lake Iamonia’s scores over the last few years are well blow that, averaging in the low 40s (chart on Page 64).

Fish Safety: According to the DOH Freshwater Fish Guide, this is a fairly healthy lake.  Florida lakes and rivers are considered to have low to medium mercury levels, so the guide puts limits on how much they recommend that an individual eats.  They recommend most fish caught in Iamonia be eaten no more than twice a week (page 16) for most species (slightly less for children and pregnant/ trying to get pregnant mothers).  This is as high as they go for any Florida waterbody.

Other Concerns: As we learned during the Red Hills Water EcoAdventure, the lake’s sinkhole was impounded in the 1930s.  While the dam has been removed, there is ecological damage that could take generations to fix.

Lake Miccosukee (6,257 acres.  It forms the northeast border of Leon County, but is located in Jefferson County)

Nutrients: It averages in the 50s on the TSI index (page 174-5); below the impairment level but higher than Iamonia due to an elevation of one particular nutrient, chlorophyl a.  This may be related to the dam constructed around its sinkhole in 1954.  It’s a story you see on many area lakes, playing out slightly differently on each.  Impounded lakes end up with floating islands of vegetation, tussocks, which block the sun and add organic material to the sediment.  This vegetation might be responsible for the elevated chlorophyl.

Fish Safety: The high amount of vegetation on the surface has reduced the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water, and so there aren’t a lot of fish in the lake.  Of the two species listed on the DOH document, it recommends no more than twice a week (page 18) for bluegill  and once a week for largemouth bass.  This is typical for bass throughout the document; some fish store more mercury in their fat cells.

Lake Jackson (4,000 acres)

Stormwater runoff in Elanor Klapp-Phipps Park.  This plot of land is adjacent to Lake Jackson, which is why it was purchased by the  Northwest Florida Water Management District.  Having protected land next to the lake reduced urban runoff into it.

Stormwater runoff in Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park. This plot of land is adjacent to Lake Jackson, which is why it was purchased by the Northwest Florida Water Management District. Having protected land next to the lake reduces urban runoff into it.

Nutrients: Over the course of the last few years, the color of the lake’s surface has clarified, so it technically qualifies as a clearwater lake with a lower TSI threshold.  As such, it would be considered an impaired lake, averaging in the 40s on the TSI index (page 95).  The report questions using the lower threshold, citing “the dynamic nature of the lake and the recent drought” (pages 95-96).  Part of the change in color is attributed to changes in stormwater management, which have reduced runoff to the lake.

Fish Safety: Bluegill & redear sunfish, twice a week.  Largemouth bass, once a week (page 16).

Lake Hall (182 acres, a part of the Lake Jackson Watershed)

Tall Timbers' Georgia Ackerman teaches me to stand up paddleboard on Lake Hall, as part of our Red Hills Water EcoAdventure.

Tall Timbers’ Georgia Ackerman teaches me to stand up paddleboard on Lake Hall, as part of our Red Hills Water EcoAdventure.

Nutrients: Lake Hall is one of the cleanest lakes in Leon County, averaging in the high 20s (page 91) on the TSI.  As a clearwater lake, it’s threshold for impairment is 40.  Lake Hall is partially located in Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park.  There are some restrictions on the use of motors on Lake Hall.

Fish Safety: Not listed.  The lake is fished pretty regularly, however.

Middle Leon County

Lake Lafayette 

Dead vegetation on the surface of Lower lake Lafayette.  The segmentation of the lake in the early twentieth century has affected its ability to "dry down."  Many Leon county lakes naturally empty every few years, and the plants and animals that live in the lake have adapted to and thrive in such conditions.  Impounding Lake Lafayette has caused floating mats of vegetation to form on its surface, disrupting the lake's ecology.  Clearing it is an involved and expensive process.

Dead vegetation on the surface of Lower Lake Lafayette. The segmentation of the lake in the early twentieth century has affected its ability to “dry down.” Many Leon county lakes naturally empty into sinkholes every few years, and the plants and animals that live in the lakes have adapted to and thrive in such conditions. Impounding Lake Lafayette has caused floating mats of vegetation to form on its surface, disrupting the lake’s ecology. Clearing the vegetation is an involved and expensive process.

As we learned on our Lafayette Heritage Trail Park EcoAdventure last year, the historical Lake Lafayette has been segmented into four smaller lakes by earthen dams.  As with other lakes in our area (Iamonia, Jackson, and Miccosukee), its sinkhole was separated to prevent the lake from draining.  The sinkhole is in Upper Lake Lafayette.  The other lakes are Piney Z. Lake, the Alford Arm, and Lower Lake Lafayette (which feeds the St. Marks River).  Impounding the lake has resulted in tussocks and accumulation of mucky sediment, as in the other lakes.

This lake is north of the Cody Escarpment and is considered a part of the Red Hills.  I classify it differently because of its more urban setting.

Nutrients :

  • Upper Lake Lafayette: Based on its color, its TSI index is 40.  It regularly exceeds that threshold, averaging about 50 TSI (page 132) and going into the 90s in 2005.  This part of the lake drains housing developments and is adjacent to the Walmart/ Costco shopping center on Mahan Drive.
  • Piney Z. Lake: Like Upper Lafayette, Piney Z.’s threshold is 40 TSI.  The lake regularly exceeds that, with scores typically between 50-70 TSI (page 136), and sometimes higher.  In late 2013, WFSU-FM reporter Lynn hatter reported on a toxic algal bloom on Piney Z.  The Department of Health’s Algal Bloom Tracking Tool still has a mark on the lake, though I don’t know how often that data gets updated.  The lake is bordered by Piney Z. Plantation housing development, whose newsletter advised residents on methods to reduce their nutrient contribution to the lake.
  • Alford Arm: Alford Arm drains the Miccosukee Greenway, the J.R. Alford Greenway, and the Welaunee Plantations.  It’s threshold is 60 TSI, and its average TSI is in the low 40s (page 140).
  • Lower Lake Lafayette: Its threshold is 60 TSI, and it has only exceeded that once in the last ten years, in 2004.  While its score came perilously close to 60 for a couple of years after that, since 2006 its TSI score has dropped into the low 40s/ upper 30s (page 146).

Fish Safety: Only Piney Z. is listed, recommending no more than two a week (page 27) for all species. I’m not sure if this data was collected before or after the toxic algal bloom.

Lake Talquin (6,963.  It is a larger lake than Iamonia, but it is an artificial lake created by a hydroelectric dam on the Ochlockonee River)

Nutrients: The lake averages in the low 50s on the TSI index, below its threshold of 60 (page 253).

Fish Safety: Two a week for all species except largemouth bass (page 22).

Lake Talquin is recognized as an outstanding body of water by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The Bradford Chain of Lakes

The Bradford chain is comprised of three connected lakes: Bradford, Hiawatha, and Cascade.

The first time I ever paddled a canoe or kayak was in my mid-twenties, at the FSU Seminole Reservation on Lake Bradford.  Wanting to get my son Max out on the water at a younger age, I took him out there last year.

The first time I ever paddled a canoe or kayak was in my mid-twenties, at the FSU Seminole Reservation on Lake Bradford. Wanting to get my son Max out on the water at a younger age, I took him there last year.

Nutrients:

  • Lake Bradford: It averages in the 40s on the TSI index (page 191), which is below its threshold of 60.  It has risen since 2006; prior to then it had averaged in the 30s (the report theorizes that this may be due to runoff created  by Tropical Storm Faye in late 2008).  Lake Bradford sits between the FSU Seminole Reservation and the Tallahassee Museum, and drains the residential area between Orange Avenue and Capital Circle.
  • Lake Hiawatha: The lake averages in the 40s on the TSI index (page 194), below its threshold of 60.  While paddling the corridor between Lake Bradford and Lake Hiawatha, you pass the Florida panther enclosure in the Tallahassee Museum.
  • Lake Cascade: Lake Cascade Averages in the low 30s on the TSI index (page 197), well below its threshold of 60.  This lake is susceptible to drought.  The report lists gaps where water could not be collected due to low levels.

Fish Safety: Not listed.

South Leon

Lake Munson (255 acres)

The sad thing about Lake Munson is that it is really an attractive lake.  It is believed to have once been a cypress swamp, that had its water impounded in the 1800s.  It is still ringed by cypress trees.

The sad thing about Lake Munson is that it is really an attractive lake. It is believed to have once been a cypress swamp, that had its water impounded in the 1800s. It is still ringed by cypress trees.

Nutrients: “The lake has a history of severe water quality and ecologic problems including fish kills, algal blooms, floating aquatic vegetation, high nutrient and bacterial levels, low game fish productivity, sediment contamination, and depressed oxygen levels (Maristany and Bartel, 1989)” (page 206).  Lake Munson routinely exceeds 60 on the TSI index (page 208), though it will dip below the threshold seasonally, sometimes for over a year.  When I visited the lake earlier in the month, Johnny Richardson told me that the heavy rain we’ve gotten does help to flush the lake.  The DOH Algal Bloom tracking tool reports toxic blooms on both Lake Munson and on Munson Slough to the north of the lake (the slough also continues to the south through the Apalachicola National Forest, partially draining into Wakulla Springs).  The tool merely reports that there have been blooms recently.  The blooms had washed away when I visited, but Mr. Richardson expects them back in the summer.

Fish Safety: The DOH guide recommends no more than twice a week for all species but black crappie (page 19).  This is their recommendation based on mercury level.  There is a warning for PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyl, an endocrine disruptor, page 35).  It recommends, based on PCB concerns in largemouth bass, no more than one meal a month.  That’s if you’re willing to put any amount of it in your body to begin with.

Additional Concerns: At several points over the last ten years, Lake Munson has exceeded the acceptable levels of fecal coliform (page 216).  Fecal coliform is caused by human or animal waste, and an excess could be due to septic tank failures or sewage overflows.

So that’s the good, the bad, and the ugly of our local lakes.  There is plenty of good recreation and fishing to be had, but it is helpful to know which bodies of water present potential health risks.  Most of the problems are preventable, if people are willing to make changes.  Some of the changes aren’t too much of a burden, and others have benefits beyond reducing personal pollution.  We’ll look at some of those in the coming weeks.

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Water Moves: Into and Out of Your Home and Watershed

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
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Teams of children try to remove water from a central pool without stepping over a red line.

I was happy to hear that our station was going to create a game where children would learn about the movement of water in our area. Not enough people know where their drinking water comes from and where it goes. The short answer is: from the earth, and back into the earth. The longer answer led me to the specific place that drains FSU, FAMU, TCC, and Tallahassee’s downtown. The water we drink and the water we use for recreation in lakes, rivers, and on the Gulf, that water is all part of a system. There are subsystems within that system. There is the manmade network of pipes and treatment facilities that take water from the aquifer and place it in our homes; or the aquifer itself, replenishing with rain and feeding springs.

With Water Moves, WFSU aimed to teach children about systems thinking. Our local game is part of a larger initiative from PBS Kids Digital, which wanted something that had kids running around to compliment an upcoming computer game. Six teams of six kids had the same goal, to fill their buckets (houses) from a central pool (the aquifer) using tools they bought by earning points. Jamie Shakar from the City of Tallahassee then talked with them about the actual system, through which rain sublimes into the ground and is filtered through sand, clay, and ultimately limestone, finally reaching the sites where the city pumps our water.

In our Red Hills EcoAdventure, I made a connection between sinkholes in our lakes and our drinking water . Technically speaking, the water we drink does not come from surface water (lakes and rivers), but from groundwater (filtered and made clean as it makes its way down). To our second presenter of the day, though, all water in the aquifer is connected and must be protected.

Where Munson Slough flows into Lake Henrietta.

Where Munson Slough flows into Lake Henrietta.

Karen Rubin is with the City of Tallahassee’s TAPP (Think About Personal Pollution). She showed that, as rain falls and filters through the ground into the aquifer, it also travels off of lawns and parking lots and down streets, looking for a low point. As this is how water flows, the low points tend to be lakes. For the most urban areas within Tallahassee, that low spot is Lake Munson. It is the most compromised body of water in our county. It is fed by Munson Slough, which runs through Lake Henrietta along the way. I visited Lake Henrietta, where the county has built barriers to catch some of our trash and keep it out of Lake Munson. What I saw, and smelled, kind of surprised me. I thought that the Munson Watershed’s problems would be more subtle, evidencing themselves in water quality readings on a table in a report. I was wrong.

What is being carried into Lake Munson? Think of our roadways, and all of the car exhaust that hits it. Do you notice a little puddle under your car when you run the air? And in and around our homes. People fertilize their lawns and vegetable gardens (As we’ve covered before, an excess of nitrogen from fertilizers ends up feeding algae, which blooms, sucks up oxygen and kills aquatic life). We use pesticides to kill those ant piles that pop up everywhere. We pressure wash our houses with chemicals. Water washes off of our lawns, picking up these chemicals and compounds as it drains to that low spot in our watershed.

Now, if Lake Munson was the final resting place of these pollutants, we might well say “Munson can take one for the team” and let it collect our refuse. We have so many great lakes and rivers already. But Munson Slough continues southward from the lake. It disappears down Ames Sink and a percentage of its water end up in Wakulla Springs.

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An anhinga, surrounded by hydrilla, on Wakulla Springs. By occupying the space where water runs against vegetation, hydrilla may have prevented apple snails from laying their eggs and ultimately depriving limpkins of  food.

Wakulla Springs has an outline of a limpkin on its sign. And while some comments in a 2012 post regarding limpkins offer some hope for their return, that bird disappeared from the park in the 1990s. No definitive cause has been determined, but many look at invasive hydrilla as a culprit. Fed by excess nutrients, it is a major presence in Wakulla Springs. So much so that it encroached upon the bases of plants where apple snails lay eggs. When its source of food disappeared, there was no reason for the bird to stay.

Johnny Richardson is a water quality scientist with Leon County. He told me that while 11% of the nutrients in Wakulla Springs are known to come from streams and sinks, they don’t know exactly how much comes from the Munson system.

And while the water that flows from Wakulla Springs into the Wakulla River is considered compromised by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the system seems to clean it before it reaches the lower Wakulla, where it meets with the St. Marks River. St. Marks is a town that celebrates its fishing heritage with a Stone Crab Festival that we visited last year. While we in Tallahassee are connected through water to this fertile fishing ground, and to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, our pollutants seem to dilute or get filtered out before reaching them.

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A television lies in algae just downstream of a dam on Lake Munson. From here, the lake flows into Munson Slough, through the Apalachicola National Forest, and into Wakulla Springs.

It’s hard to say how much one leaky car or one overzealous gardener might degrade our beloved natural resources. Tallahassee can take the blame for Lake Munson, accept that it has some negative influence on Wakulla Springs, and feel okay that it isn’t contaminating seafood in St. Marks. What we do know is that we can make the problems better or worse. We can control this.

Over the summer, we’ll look at ways to reduce our personal pollution. For instance, instead of leaving a TV and its toxic innards on the curb for a few days, or heaving it into a lake, you can take it to Leon County’s Solid Waste Facility. It’s a little out of the way, but maybe you were going to Tom Brown Park or Walmart anyway?

Also over the summer, we’ll get back to the fun EcoAdventures. Also, Randall Hughes and David Kimbro will look back at the research into salt marsh, oyster reef, and seagrass bed ecology that we’ve been following over the years. Our area has some amazing ecology, and there are places we haven’t been and connections we haven’t yet made. I never tire of learning how it all works.

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Video: Bradwell Bay Wilderness Hike- Night and Day

Watch and listen: what does a Wilderness sound like at night?

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

P1060490-SmallerIt seems like a good premise for a movie: Under a full moon, on Friday the thirteenth, a group of people wander in the Wilderness. You could be a part of this movie on Friday, June 13 (8 pm), as Haven Cook of the U.S. Forest Service leads a hike into the Bradwell Bay Wilderness. It’s one of a series of events being held in the Apalachicola National Forest to celebrate 50 years of the Wilderness Act. Passed in 1964, the act designated certain protected areas as Wilderness.

So how is a Wilderness any different than any other protected land? We are surrounded by the Apalachicola National Forest, St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, Wildlife Management Areas, state parks, and large greenways. There are some waterways near here where you could spend hours and not see many signs of civilization. It’s already plenty wild around here, right?

A Wilderness area restricts the use of motorized or mechanical equipment. Not even a bicycle or, as the sign at the trailhead states, a hang glider (the WFSU hang glider was sadly left behind in our vehicle). No structures can be placed on the grounds, though any that were historically found there can remain. It has to, as the act states, retain “its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation.” Section 2(c) of the 1964 Wilderness Act. The primary force affecting the Wilderness must be nature, not man. The idea is that you can go there and experience total solitude in nature, and that means freedom from the buzz of a chainsaw or seeing that glider over your head.

The primary man made feature of the Bradwell Bay Wilderness is the unpaved trail that runs through it. In the pine flatwood area leading up to the swamp, it was an old road that Haven believes might have led to an homestead, likely belonging to the Bradwell family. It has a ditch running along either side of it, where you can occasionally see pitcher plants growing (as we learned a few weeks ago in another part of the Apalachicola National Forest, carnivorous plants love ditches and their found-in-nature equivalents). There is an old bridge that takes you over a small creek that drains into the Sopchoppy River. While they won’t put any forest roads through the Wilderness (its boundaries are formed by forest roads), the trail is maintained as a part of the Florida National Scenic Trail. In places, that doesn’t mean much more than an orange blaze on a tree.

Some Wilderness areas don’t even have that level of human footprint. The Mud Swamp/ New River Wilderness, also in the National Forest, is one. In general, Wilderness areas in the Eastern United States tend to be smaller and less isolated than in the less populous Western half of the country. In 1975, congress passed the Eastern Wilderness Act, which created the Bradwell Bay Wilderness. This act acknowledges that “additional areas of wilderness in the more populous eastern half of the United States are increasingly threatened by the pressure of a growing and more mobile population, large-scale industrial and economic growth, and development and uses inconsistent with the protection, maintenance, and enhancement of the areas’ wilderness character.” Section 2(a)(3) of the Eastern Wilderness Act.

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Often in the Forest, you’ll see these burnt woody shrubs among the palmettos between the pines. Longleaf and slash pine can tolerate fire and palmettos grow back, but hardwood trees do not fare well in this ecosystem.

It should also be noted that, though the area is intended to be as much as possible like it was when this country was founded, the pine flatwood area is a second growth forest where you can still see rows of planted slash pine. Like many of the places that we consider wild around here, it had been cut at some point. It is, like the rest of the forest, maintained by prescribed fire. This is to replicate the fire regime that occurred naturally before the area was settled by Americans. Since the Wilderness won’t burn every three to four years without assistance, The Forest Service keeps the “primeval” character of the area by simulating the regime that had occurred there.

We didn’t make it to the swamp, as we were previewing the full moon hike, though a little earlier to get more shots in the light. We’ll have to save that for another EcoAdventure. If you’re going on June 13, the sun will set within the first hour of the hike, and there will be mosquitos. And also ticks. This isn’t out of the ordinary for a hike at this time of the year. But when the moon comes out, you’ll see the Wilderness entirely differently. More strikingly, it will sound different. And, you know, there’ll be that slasher movie plot thing happening.

Coming Up

One value of the Bradwell Bay Wilderness is that, without motorized vehicles or human made structures, the stormwater runoff flowing from it to the Sopchoppy River is clean. We spend a lot of time on our EcoAdventures visiting well preserved, healthy land and water resources. On our last EcoAdventure of the season, we’re going to visit some places where you don’t want to touch the water or eat fish from it. We’re talking drinking water (which is clean) and stormwater. Wait until you see the bodies of water that collect our runoff.

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Wewahitchka: Dead Lakes Kayaking and Tupelo Adventure

Video: We explore Wewahitchka’s famous tupelo honey, from the ogeechee trees in the Dead Lakes, to the bees who make it, to the apiaries that bring it to us.

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The Dead Lakes: October 2012.

I have been wanting to do a video on the Dead Lakes and Wewa Tupelo honey for a couple of years now.  I caught the briefest glimpse of the Dead Lakes on the next to last day of RiverTrek 2012, as we were shuttled from our campsite in Wewahitchka back to Gaskin Park on the Apalachicola River.  The water was low then, during the dry part of a dry year, and so the cypress knees and pine trunks were well exposed.  Revisiting the same spot via kayak a couple of weeks ago, I passed over submerged and unseen knees.  For this video, we needed to visit just as the rainy season was ending.  I wanted to to see tupelo blooming and bees working.  Matt Godwin from Off the Map Expeditions set me up to do just that.

The Ogeechee tupelo (Nyssa ogeche) is a sensitive plant.  We learned on RiverTrek how reduced water flows on the Apalachicola over the last 30+ years have led to a 40% loss of tupelo in the forested floodplain.  It likes the water, but, as beekeeper Donnie Harcus of Donnie’s Bees tells us in the video, rain will knock tupelo flowers onto the ground where bees won’t pollinate them.  So it has to be wet, but it can’t rain too much, and it has to be fairly hot.  I guess flowers that produce premium honey have the right to be a little demanding.

Bees making tupelo honey for Donnie's Bees in Wewahitchka.

Bees making tupelo honey for Donnie’s Bees in Wewahitchka.

The other part of the honey equation is the animal that makes it: the honey bee.  “You can talk a week on bees,” Donnie told me.  “They’re just an amazing creature”  His job as a beekeeper has him racing to keep up with the bees and the blooms of the area.

When you visit the bee yard, you’ll see stacks of boxes in long rows.  Each box is a hive, and when the bees finish filling one box with honey, Donnie and his crew have to lay another one above it or the bees will swarm.  His most efficient bees have stacks that are five boxes high.

The bees we visited were busy making tupelo honey.  Donnie hadn’t yet touched it, as the hives weren’t filled.

He has to move the hives to the flowers he wants them to pollinate.  Before the tupelo bloomed, the hives were closer to where titi, maple, and highbush gall berry trees were flowering.  The bees create from a combination of these flowers something called red honey.  When the tupelo bloom ends, the boxes go to California not to make honey, but to help with almond harvest.  Bees do much more to feed us than make honey, aiding in the production of $20 to 30 billion of produce in the United States alone (which makes their rapid decline all the more concerning).

Back where Donnie extracts the honey from the honeycomb, his crew was still working on red honey.  This is bakery grade honey, Donnie says, meant to be processed and used in cereal, bread, and shampoo.  The tupelo is table grade; you are meant to drizzle it on your biscuits and taste it.  The red honey wasn’t bad though.  When they offered us some honeycomb to chew on, I felt sad that, as Donnie says, this honey will be “run through a whole line of filters.  It probably won’t have any pollen when they get done.”  It was a rare treat to eat honey right out of a container built for it by bees.

Bee hives in Wewahitchka

Beekeepers can’t control where bees will fly, so they will never produce 100% tupelo honey. Apiaries get their honey tested, and that which has at least 51% tupelo pollen grains can be called tupelo honey.

At Smiley Apiaries, we sampled some more varieties.  I’ve always been partial to wildflower honey and its particular tang.  Every year, different flowers bloom in different quantities, and so the character is different from one year to the next.  The fall bloom is different than the spring bloom.  We tasted very different wildflower vintages from this year and last, as well as orange blossom (with a subtle hint of orange flavor), highbush gall berry, and of course tupelo.

Tupelo is prized for its flavor and its reputed resistance to crystallization.  It’s a fitting product for so unique a location.  Many of the bees are positioned around protected lands that sit along the Apalachicola and Chipola Rivers, lands that shelter tupelo swamps.  We drove through the Apalachicola Wildlife and Environmental Area to get to Donnie’s Bees. As long as enough water keeps flowing into these swamps, there will be enough ogeechee to sustain the industry in Wewahitchka. Nestled between the mighty Apalach and that place where the Chipola turns into the Dead Lakes, Wewa is a river town that makes the most of its water.

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