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Last modified: April 23. 2007 4:23AM

from SW Florida's Herald Tribune

Beekeeper's life about 'chasing the blooms'

The orange blossom season has been done for almost a month now, so Gary Ranker has just about finished moving his 30 million honeybees from the citrus groves where they spent the winter to the vine-crop fields -- melons, cucumbers, squash -- where they will do their pollination thing until early fall. Ranker is the last big beekeeper left in Manatee County, and a beekeeper's life, as he tells it, is all about "chasing the blooms." As soon as crop plants start to flower, farmers hire his bees by the truckload to do what bees do, carry male pollen to the female blossom, thus turning the blossom into a zucchini, or an ear of corn, or a melon. Tomato plants spread their pollen on the wind, but most everything else that Florida grows needs the help of bees, a fact of nature people seem to have lost sight of, says Ranker, now that "they think food gets made at the supermarket." "No bees, no crops," he shrugs. That much is still true. Ranker moves his bees on a flatbed truck that is the only new vehicle he has owned in his 61 years, and he does it by night. Bees don't sleep, but darkness quiets the hives down. Even so, there is always some activity during transport. It's better if the roads aren't crowded because people do not react well to the sight of swarming bees. On a night when he is moving bees, Ranker will typically be stung 100 times. After countless thousands of stings over the 48 years he has been keeping bees, his body has adjusted so that the stings no longer swell, but every one still hurts. "I liken it to the person who has to take insulin for their diabetes," says Ranker, a Maryland native who has been here long enough for his accent to have picked up a light dusting of interior Florida's slow drawl. "Does it hurt when that needle sticks ya' -- well, yeah. But you need to do what it takes it to get the job done."

The bachelor life "This is the bee house," says Ranker of his '70s split-level on the 10-acre Palmetto farm where he lives and works. Stacks of bee magazines spill out from under a coffee table appointed with bee coasters. There is a large bee pillow on the sofa, and plastic bees of varying sizes serve as paperweights for bee articles he has clipped. His pets all have names that begin with B, including a cockatiel called Benjy and a cat named Barker because Ranker really wanted a dog. He's been married twice, neither time for very long, five years the first time and three years the next. Some artifacts of the second marriage remain in his living room -- salmon-colored walls, the occasional crocheted doily -- but the house feels like a bachelor lives there, which is how he likes it. It is a solitary life, beekeeping. Ranker works alone for most of the year, except when he hires on a couple of helpers during the honey harvests that follow each growing season. His honey gets shipped off in barrels to the SueBee folks in Iowa, who blend it with honeys from thousands of independent bee farmers around the country -- "bee men," he calls them, even if they're women, which they rarely are. "I always wanted to be a bee man," Ranker says, meaning since he discovered bees in the fifth grade. A year after that, he bought his first hive. By 15 he owned a dozen hives -- maybe half a million bees -- and was selling his honey to a wholesaler. Ranker worked five years after high school at a tire factory to save up enough money to finance his business degree from the University of Maryland. After graduation, he stopped being a "sideliner," as bee men call the hobbyists among them, and went into the business full time. He will do a bee removal once in a while, but Ranker's income is about evenly split between pollination and its by-products, honey and beeswax.

Like the farmers who are his customers, Ranker is feeling the increasing threat of cheap foreign competition. Other countries are not allowed to export their bees to the United States, but they sell their honey and beeswax here, especially China, where bee cultivation has become a significant industry. "I'm basically working for Chinese wages, as far as the honey is concerned," Ranker says. As far as pollination is concerned, beekeepers in 25 states, including Florida, have been hit hard by what's called "Colony Collapse Disorder," which causes whole hives to empty out overnight. "There are no dead bodies," says Ranker, no evidence that the insects have died in the hive. "They're just gone." He's down 250 hives this year, a quarter of his optimal bee population, and he knows of other beekeepers who had been wiped out. "They haven't found anything that can be done about it because they haven't found out what causes it," says Ranker, who subscribes to the theory that there's some sort of chemical involved, some sort of additive to commercial seeds, producing blossoms that causes bees to "fly off and die somewhere." Now, bee colonies are starting to collapse mysteriously in western Europe. In Great Britain, they're talking about cell phone radiation as a possible culprit. "It's a funny world," says Gary Ranker. "And that's a fact."

More hard work ahead Ranker lost 70 percent of his bees over the long and windy summer of Hurricane Charley. One of his two grown sons came down to help him rebuild, which required hundreds of new queen bees at $12 to $15 apiece. ("I remember," he says, "when you could get a queen for 75 cents.") If another disaster were to hit Ranker Apiary, he's not sure he'd have the money or the energy to start up again. He hopes to get another 10 years out of bee farming, but you never know. California bee-farming has been cut in half over the last 20 years because development has eaten up so much land that once served as "bee pasture" -- farms, orchards, wildflower fields. Ranker's scruffy 10 acres, dotted with stands of palmetto ("about the best honey there is") and mounds of rusted metal salvage, is being blocked in by planned communities of "400 homes here, 600 homes there." "Sooner or later, they're going to pave over the shell road out here at the end of my driveway, and that'll be the end of (the rural) way of life out here." He's been broken into a couple times, both his home and the "honey house" at the edge of his property, the working warehouse where he does his extracting and his processing. "You couldn't imagine something like that happening 10 years ago. Now, I lock up my truck when it's sitting out in the yard."

But a farmer's life allows little time for nostalgia. Ranker has a pole barn to finish putting up, to protect the bees while he's working them during the summer, treating them for the pests and mites to which Florida honeybees are especially vulnerable. Before the next honey harvest, his extractors and the processing tanks will need a good cleaning. He's got new queens coming in and colonies to build, replacing those that have disappeared. And there's a grower up the way who's desperate for bees, his usual supplier having gone out of business and his 600 acres of cantaloupe plants already flowering on the ground. Ranker's bees were all working elsewhere, but he was able to deploy some of the troops to save the melons. "No bees, no crops," he says again. "You always want to help a guy out if you can."

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