Lakewood Ranch land planner Bob Simons is single-handedly keeping East Manatee County’s bee population buzzing.
The air in Lakewood Ranch is thick with afternoon rain and stifling heat. Creatures everywhere are running for shelter. In The Lake Club, a luxury development east of Lorraine Road, residents are coming home from work, their wipers on high and their lights on low, steam rising up from the concrete. It’s 5:30 and everyone wants to be inside and dry, even the bees.
Bob Simons waits for a break between showers, steps out of his truck and into his bee garb. The ensemble is a cross between Hazmat suit and auto mechanic’s uniform: Dickies coveralls, white hood, requisite bee veil and goatskin gloves that don’t protect against stingers when they’re wet. He moves toward a four-foot-high bee box, a nondescript white dresser obscured by faux Tuscan scenery and a few rows of novelty grapevines. He lifts the lid. The bees come in drips and drabs.
“The girls aren’t too pissed,” he mutters through his veil. “I’m surprised. They don’t like rain or low-pressure weather.”
Like a dairy farmer talking about his cows, Simons refers to the bees as his girls, which is largely accurate. For every one male drone in the hive, there are 100 worker bees –– all of them female and none of them pleased about having their roof ripped off in the rain.
With the ease of an office worker pulling a manila folder out of a filing cabinet, Simons slides a hive frame out of the box and holds it out in front of him. The frame is dense with capped honeycomb in perfect hexagonal cells that took thousands of bees thousands of hours and thousands of flights to and from nearby wildflowers to collectively build. “Hold this,” he says, brushing off a few hangers-on. “You wont believe how heavy it is.”
Some people run away from bees. Simons runs toward them. Beekeeping, he says, is therapeutic. It requires focus and stillness. It quiets his mind and zaps his stress. When he’s working with bees he feels nothing but respect and amazement. His worries dissipate … like pollen.
“I started in the business when there were very few threats to bees,” Simons says. “Today is different. Today I feel like you look at the bees and you look at yourself.”
He’s worked with bees for so long the stings don’t even bother him. Like most beekeepers, the Florida native has developed a tolerance to the venom. If he goes too long between beekeeping, he plucks two “girls” out of a bee box and sticks one in each of his thighs to help re-build his immunity. “They say bee stings help with arthritis by increasing circulation,” Simons says. “I tried it on my knuckles. It didn’t work.”
The 65-year-old Braden Woods resident is something of an unlikely beekeeper. A landscape architect and veteran land planner, Simons has worked for Schroeder-Manatee Ranch for 23 years. As President of Lakewood Ranch Development, he looks like every other seasoned developer in SMR’s headquarters – button-down shirt, dress pants, irksome cell phone. Get him out of the office however and talking about bees, and his southern drawl (he’s a native of Zephyrhills) gets more languid and his language more salty.
“No way in hell did I want to be a beekeeper,” he says. “My uncle dragged me into it.”
The story of how Simons got into beekeeping plays out like a layered coming-of-age tale. It starts with the loss of his father, whom Simons says, “hung the sun, the moon and the stars.” When he died from spinal cancer, Simons – one of four children, including a twin brother – was only 15. In the wake of his death, Simon’s mother turned to his uncle for help. “I had lost myself,” Simons says. “And my uncle lived half a mile up the road. She said, ‘you need to do something with Bobby.’ So there I was, hanging out with my Uncle Bill, who was not a warm and fuzzy kind of guy.”
A gruff, rigorously scheduled retired millwright, his uncle was also a hobby beekeeper with 75 hives scattered from Ocala to Sarasota. When school let out for the summer, Simons was tasked with helping him tend to the far-flung colonies. This exercise in bonding was not exactly a teenager’s idea of fun.
The first time he suited up in the bee garb, his aunt sealed the suit shut with duct tape. “I looked like the Michelin man,” Simons recalls. “My uncle laughed and said, ‘there’s not a bee known to man who can get through that suit.”
The following weeks unrolled like a master class in honey farming, Simons dutifully splitting hives, moving hives, re-queening hives and extracting honey alongside his uncle. One day, to test his commitment to the job, Uncle Bill showed up at Simons’ house with a box of bees. He backed up his El Camino to the family’s pump house; set an empty hive on four concrete blocks, placed nine frames into the hive and dumped the bees inside. “Here’s your first hive,” he said. “Take care of them.”
Simons was befuddled. He told his uncle he didn’t ask for a hive. To which his uncle replied, “I didn’t ask if you wanted one. Their survival is up to you. If you have questions, you know where I am.”
The teen relented and the colony thrived.
“There was no way I was letting them die,” Simons says. “Shoot if I did, I’d have to deal with my uncle’s wrath for the rest of his life.”
Simons has spent most of his career working for contractors and developers, first for Taylor Woodrow helping build out The Meadows in Sarasota and now for SMR. In between these two endeavors, he ran a company that specialized in golf course design and construction management. After working with bees alongside his uncle for 10 years, he abandoned the practice to focus on his career, storing all the equipment he inherited in a barn in Zephyrhills.
Fifteen years ago, he dusted off his uncle’s old poplar hives when maintenance workers in Lakewood Ranch stared exterminating bee colonies in underground irrigation valve boxes. “Knowing the plight of bees, I felt obligated to extract the colonies so they would not be destroyed,” Simons says.
The extractions turned into a full-fledged second job – or as Simons likes to call it, “an overzealous hobby.” He now devotes many of his weekends and evenings to vacuum extracting unwanted bees. He currently has six bee boxes behind his home, 14 boxes in The Lake Club and at least half a dozen hives that need be pulled out of underground telecom and valve boxes around Lakewood Ranch.
“He’s trying to save the bees one hive at a time,” says Simons’ wife, Leigh. “When he’s with them, his focus isn’t on anything else. He’s like the bee whisperer.”
If Lakewood Ranch is a hive, Simons helped make the honeycomb cell by cell. Rex Jensen, SMR CEO and President says his colleague’s imprint can be seen on much of the community’s built environment, as well as in the areas reserved for natural habitat and environmental stewardship. Beekeeping, says Jensen, “is a natural extension of Bob’s interests and his work.”
Simons produces about 20 gallons of honey a year, enough to give away as presents and keep the Lodge at Country Club East fully stocked. (In exchange for keeping hives on SMR’s property, Simons supplies the clubhouse restaurant with his B-Works Wildflower Honey.)
The developer would retire and step up his honey operation, if there wasn’t so much work to do in Lakewood Ranch. It’s boom time again. More neighborhoods are breaking ground. More parks are cropping up. More families are moving in. More roads are being cut. More bees are burrowing underground.
Simons doesn’t understand why this is happening. European honeybees like their hives high and dry. He wonders if something has changed in the insects’ genetics to make them colonize underground. “Who knows,” Simons says. “Bees find a way.”
They don’t always find a way. Several years ago, Simons lost nearly half his hives due to colony collapse; a vague term used to describe the dramatic disappearance of honeybees across the globe. Simons, like many beekeepers, blames colony collapse on the rise in systemic pesticides on food crops. To prevent further loss, he began splitting his hives and re-queening them each spring, in effect doubling the number of bees in each colony. Similar adjustments have been made by commercial beekeepers with great success. Bee loss has leveled out across the country.
A bee-pocalypse certainly seems less imminent in Lakewood Ranch, where bees are literally crawling out of the woodwork. As Simons drives from hive to hive checking on his girls, one thing becomes increasingly clear: the bees are perfectly managed out here.
They’re cool with Simons, oblivious to the fact that without him they wouldn’t have a home. Not unlike the residents of Lakewood Ranch.
Simons seems to draw a similar comparison.
“I can only hope the communities I build are as successful as the communities the bees build,” he says, turning his truck out of The Lake Club. “It doesn’t get more organized than that.”