TIPTON, Okla. (AP) _ Honey has been in Gary Grose's blood for nearly 35 years. The bee colonies in his commercial honey operation have weathered fire ants, drought, mites, aggressive Africanized bees and a host of diseases, including one that inexplicably wipes out entire colonies.
But his biggest challenge these days is the glut of honey imported annually from countries such as China, Vietnam and Argentina, where it can be mass-produced faster and cheaper than Grose could ever dream of doing in this rural, southwestern Oklahoma community of 840.
``The coup de grace? Sell us your honey at 60 cents less than you produced it for, or get out,'' says Grose, 42, the manager of Tipton Valley Honey Co. ``Do you realize we're now outsourcing honeybees, for God's sake?''
Foreign competition is enough for Grose, along with dozens of farmers with small and medium-sized operations, to think about cashing in now and folding businesses that have been running for decades.
The timing couldn't be worse. Along with the economic factors, farmers in more than two dozen states are seeing bees mysteriously abandoning their hives, a condition called colony collapse disorder. Scientists are trying to determine what the cause is, while some theories range from mass infection to climate change.
The industry has also changed over the last 30 years. As America's population grew, farms got smaller. People who inherited beekeeping businesses turned away from that type of farming because there was too much labor and not enough payoff.
Today, the survivors' saving grace is clientele they've slowly built up at farmers markets, general stores and health food shops, where customers prefer a jar of pure, locally produced honey to one sold at a big-box retailer for half the price.
Some also make up losses these days by transporting their colonies to pollinate crops across the country, such as California almond groves. But it's a risky prospect: The bees could become infected while in transit, middlemen cut profits and the process comes with plenty of red tape.
Signs that America will continue to look elsewhere for its honey only make matters worse for Grose and others.
U.S. imports of the natural sweetener have climbed steadily in the past 20 years, as domestic production has declined, according to figures from the National Honey Board and U.S. Department of Agriculture.
``Unfortunately in this country, we consume more than we produce,'' says Jami Yanoski, with the National Honey Board, a Firestone, Colo.-based industry group set up more than 15 years ago for large-scale honey promotion.
In 1986, the U.S. produced about 200 million pounds of honey and imported 120 million pounds, according to the USDA. In 2005, production was down to 175 million pounds while imports topped 232 million pounds.
Last year, China, Argentina, Brazil, India and Vietnam accounted for more than three-fourths of all U.S. honey imports, according to the National Honey Board.
Domestic honeybee farmers are also having to do more with less. The number of honey-producing colonies fell from 3.2 million in 1986 to 2.4 million in 2005, according to the USDA.
The common misconception that all honey is the same is also putting a dent in many beekeepers' profits.
There are hundreds of varieties on the market, each with its own taste, hue and texture. Many consumers buy the jar labeled ``honey'' at Wal-Mart or Sam's Club without noticing it may have come from five different countries, says Jerry Logan, who has decades of beekeeping experience and owns Honey Hill Farm in Edmond.
Behind the wheel of a creaky 1984 Dodge pickup with a Bible on the dash, Grose performs what is a daily ritual: driving the miles of unpaved, back country roads to check on his colonies, spread out along the banks of the Red River.
He has about 600 boxes of bees _ each one could hold up to 60,000 _ spread out across the county, between $500,000 and $600,000 tied up in equipment and no backup plan if times get tougher.
So, how long can he stay afloat, if imports continue to climb?
``That's the $25,000 question right there,'' Grose says.