About 75% of crops and one-third of the global food supply rely on pollinators such as honeybees, according to Our World in Data.
But farmers have to rely on commercially managed honeybees trucked in from other states to help pollinate certain crops, such as almonds, because there aren’t enough wild bees to do the job. And trucking bees hundreds or thousands of miles is not simple.
Loading up honeybees almost always happens at night because bees are less active when it’s dark and cooler outside, Earl Warren told FreightWaves.
Earl and Merle Warren are brothers, truck drivers and co-owners of Star’s Ferry Transport, based in Burley, Idaho. They started hauling bees for a local beekeeper in 1990 and moved about 50 loads of approximately 22 million bees each last year for companies such as Browning’s Honey Co.
“This is not like a load of steel or lumber. These are live creatures. This is those beekeepers’ livelihoods, so we do everything possible to keep them alive,” Earl Warren said.
Some beekeepers estimate that every time you move a truck of bees, up to 5% of the queens die, Sharah Yaddaw, communications director at Project Apis m. (PAM), told FreightWaves. Founded by commercial beekeepers and almond growers in 2006, PAM is the largest honeybee nonprofit organization in the U.S.
Minimizing stress for bees is critical, so beekeepers rely on experienced truck drivers to navigate difficult situations such as warm weather, few opportunities to stop during the day and inspections.
Preparing bees for transport
Many beekeepers inspect, feed and treat their bees before transporting them, Yaddaw said. Crews can load a truck with 400 to 450 bee hives in 20 minutes to an hour.
Since each hive houses a colony of about 50,000 commercial honeybees, a driver could move more than 22 million bees on a single truck. That is a valuable load, so truck drivers strive to avoid issues and loss of bee life on the journey.
The weight of the hives often determines how many can be put on one trailer. Four hives are put on each pallet, and pallets are stacked on top of each other. Straps secure netting on top of the hives to keep the pallets and hives in place.
After loading up a truck at night, Warren drives for a couple of hours and tries to bypass any heavy traffic before stopping for some sleep.
When it starts to get light or warm in the morning, he takes off with the goal of arriving at his final destination for unloading after dark that evening.
Why are people trucking bees around the country?
Honeybees are disappearing due to shrinking habitats and the growing use of pesticides. When there aren’t enough bees to pollinate fields of crops, companies pay beekeepers to transport their colonies of bees for pollination season.
“The great pollination migration” happens every year in February when the almonds bloom in California.
Pollinating the seemingly endless fields of almond trees in California requires 85% to 90% of all honeybees available to pollinate in the U.S., Yaddaw said. Bees are trucked into California from across the country.
Browning’s Honey operates over 30,000 hives. The company has its bees moved about six times in a year between states, including North Dakota, Idaho, California and Texas. In addition to almonds, Browning’s Honey bees help pollinate crops such as apples, seed canola and cherries.
Commercial beekeepers that send their bees to California for pollination aim to get the bees there by the end of January, so preparations often begin in early or mid-January, depending on where they are located.
Could warm weather mean no bathroom breaks?
Honeybees are very temperature-sensitive, so transporting them in warm weather is a major challenge. They fly out of their hives at temperatures above 50 degrees Fahrenheit unless there is enough airflow from moving at high speeds.
Truckers prefer to move bees on colder days because bees can die from overheating. Warren said truck drivers hauling bees can’t take time to stop in the middle of the day to fuel up and take a shower.
“The hotter it gets, the worse it is. It’s all about timing. You have to know how many miles your run is,” Warren said. “You stop for a potty break, and the bees are out because they’ve lost the airflow.”
If bees start leaving their hives during a stop, drivers have to pull away from the stopped location slowly so the bees follow the truck and don’t bother people nearby.
“Once they’re outside the net, they’re pretty much history,” Warren said.
Bees can’t find their way back into the net and can’t survive outside of the net without their queen. But if bees leave their hives and stay under the net, they may return to their hives at night when it’s cooler.
Drivers sometimes hose down beehives with cool water to keep them from overheating.
“It’s a good commodity to haul. It’s usually a little bit of a premium for hauling bees, but there are certainly constraints involved. The timing has to be right, and once those bees are on the truck, the trucker has to really time their stops smart,” Zac Browning, fourth-generation beekeeper, co-owner of Browning’s Honey and PAM board chairman, told FreightWaves.
Warm weather can also be an issue with transporting bees via aircraft. The bees are put in enclosed containers for air travel so they can’t fly out. If left in the heat without refrigeration, they can die from heat exhaustion. That’s what happened recently at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
About 5 million bees were recently stranded on the warm tarmac without refrigeration or sugar syrup, the food they rely on during transport, The Washington Post reported. The bees were meant to fly from Sacramento, California, through Seattle on their way to Alaska but were rerouted through Atlanta because there wasn’t room on the flight to Seattle.
Instead of getting on the next flight to Seattle from Atlanta, the honeybees were left on the tarmac because the cargo hold strap mechanism on the aircraft was broken.
Jimmy Gatt, president of the Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association, sent out an email to local beekeepers saying they could keep however many bees they rescued. Gatt estimated beekeepers were able to save about 30% of the bees.
Breakdowns and maintenance
While some breakdowns are unavoidable, staying on top of vehicle maintenance is key. Warren said, “This is these people’s livelihood,” so the Warren brothers try to keep downtime, and therefore bee losses, to a minimum.
If a truck breaks down or has to stop even momentarily on a hot day, all of the bees could die or fly away. Yaddaw said, “It’s tragic, but it happens.” Warren said in his more than 30 years of experience hauling bees, he has been stung too many times to count but has only lost one load due to a breakdown that he couldn’t get fixed before the bees flew away.
Warren keeps two bee suits in his truck — one for himself in case there’s something simple like a fan belt that needs to be replaced and the other for mechanics.
Warren said some people aren’t willing to help a trucker who’s hauling bees even with access to an extra suit. But drivers can be stuck if there’s a complicated issue or a lost tire.
Browning’s Honey has dealt with crashes, breakdowns, medical emergencies, and weather-related road closures and delays when trucking honeybees.
“In all of those cases, communication is really important so that we can try to get another driver or another rig underneath that load as soon as possible so the bees don’t suffer,” Browning said.
Relying on truck drivers
Many commercial beekeepers do not transport bees around the country themselves. They entrust their valuable loads of honeybees to hired truck drivers.
“It’s critically important to have drivers that understand that bees are living animals and that they are fragile. They can be mishandled, and they can die, so we have to have drivers that understand the stress that the bees are under while they’re on their truck,” Browning said.
Truck drivers’ role is not only to drive the truck when they transport bees. They are also responsible for making tough decisions.
Browning said the past two years have been especially challenging because it’s been difficult to find drivers experienced in hauling bees, and “the cost of freight has skyrocketed.”
Merle Warren explained one situation in which years of experience helped him make an educated choice about what to do in inclement weather.
The Warren brothers had just made it from Blackfoot, Idaho, to Pocatello, Idaho — just 26 miles into their 625-mile journey to Donner Pass in California — when they were notified that the pass was closed due to snow.
The company they were hauling bees for said they would have to reroute through Las Vegas.
“I’m not going through Vegas because that’s too hot,” Warren said. “We’re not going to reroute.” Once they got to Reno, Nevada, they waited about 15 minutes and then got the all-clear that Donner Pass was open, and the chain laws were no longer in effect.
California inspection process
Trucks entering California carrying bees face a rigorous inspection process to ensure no invasive species are hitching a ride. Inspectors look for weeds, insects or dirt on hives.
If an insect is found on any hive, inspectors send a photo to scientists and entomologists. The insect has to be identified before the truck can enter the state, Yaddaw said. Trucks sometimes have to leave the state and clean off whatever was found before returning.
Warren has had to do this once, and he said it took about three hours to drive back to the nearest town, get the beehives washed off and get back to the inspection point.
“Long waits can happen, and that can cause problems for the bees,” Yaddaw said. The wait could be between 20 minutes and five hours.
PAM worked with officials at the California line to install hose stations at some of the busiest inspection points to cool off bees when there are long lines waiting to get through.
A pre-inspection program has been implemented in several states that speeds up the process. The program is “still in its infancy,” but there has been very positive feedback so far, Yaddaw said.
State inspectors go out to beekeepers’ locations to inspect honeybees before they are trucked into California. If they pass inspection, they can turn in their paperwork at the border and get through much faster.
Browning’s Honey uses the pre-inspection process, which turns about a two-hour wait into 10 or 15 minutes at the border.