Bee Downtown works to save the honeybee

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Trucking plays a vital role in the survival of the nation’s primary pollinators

In the past two decades, more than 90% of the nation’s pollinators – from bees to butterflies – have disappeared. The increasing use of pesticides is one commonly cited reason. The change in farming techniques is another. The honeybee, one of the nation’s most critical pollinators, is part of this decline.

Since 1989, when there were nearly 3.5 million honeybee colonies in the U.S., a steady decline followed, hitting rock bottom in 2008 when fewer than 2.5 million colonies remained. That number has been on the climb since then, but the fate of the honeybee may still hang in the balance as diseases and other outside influences have continued to challenge the population. In 2016, a mysterious disease killed off one-third of the nation’s honeybee colonies, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Although new data for 2017 shows a 3% rise on colonies, Tim May, vice president of the American Beekeeping Federation, told Time that the increase is largely due to constant replenishment of losses.

“You create new hives by breaking up your stronger hives, which just makes them weaker,” he said. “We check for mites, we keep our bees well-fed, we communicate with farmers so they don’t spray pesticides when our hives are vulnerable. I don’t know what else we can do.”

The honeybee not only contributes to our nation’s love of honey, but it is responsible for $15 billion of pollinated food crops each year, says the Washington Post.

That’s why organizations such as Bee Downtown, in Durham, NC, have become so critical to rejuvenating the population. And it’s why beekeepers seek out trucking companies with experience transporting bees – yes, even bees travel via truck – to help pollinate crops across the country.

Bee Downtown was founded by Leigh-Kathryn Bonner, who now serves as CEO. The company was recently selected to be part of Engage Ventures’ program for startups to provide support and funding. Founded in 2014, Bee Downtown offers businesses the opportunity to sponsor hives, which Bee Downtown will deliver to their location. Some businesses are reluctant to introduce bees to their locations, but Bonner says that honeybees are very docile creatures.

“Honeybees are very docile,” she says. “If they sting you, they will die and they know that, so they don’t sting unless they feel their hive is threatened.”

Businesses who sponsor hives receive all the honey the hive produces.

“Some companies have partnered with breweries and they make honey beer, others give it to employees at Christmas … there are bunch of things companies do with it,” Bonner says, noting that Bee Downtown handles all the hive maintenance and honey collection. “The companies' employees do beekeeping classes and receive the honey – they do all the fun stuff with us.”

Bonner says that bees also serve a vital role in pollinating animal feed crops. “We need to be aware that there is a major decline happening because they are an indicator species,” she says, noting that honeybees have been part of the earth’s ecosystem for 110 million years.

Bonner says that commercial beekeeping operations are vital to ensuring the survival of the bee population. She says that back in the days of family farms, farmers often planted different crops in the same fields throughout the year to maintain soil fertility. This rotation of crops provided year-round food for bees. The introduction of large-scale commercial farms that plant only one crop on a field has helped lead to a decline in the honeybee population. Without a constant source of food, the bees die, which is why honeybees are now relocated to farms for growing season. A single hive could be moved several times a year to different fields.

To get honeybees to fields, they must be shipped around the country, and that’s where trucking enters the picture. Most bee populations are maintained in warmer climates, like Florida and Mississippi, although there are commercial beekeeping operations in northern climes as well, says Peter Nelson, a beekeeper himself who is filming a documentary on honeybees.

Trucking plays the primary role in relocating bees, which must be moved at night when the bees are at rest in their hives. The actual transportation of bees is also somewhat unique. Like any livestock cargo, bees have special needs. First, they are active during the day, so commercial beekeepers try to move them only at night when they are at rest inside the hives. Second, they don’t do well inside the hives in extreme temperatures, so routing is very important, explains Nelson, who spoke to FreightWaves on location in South Dakota where he was filming scenes for his film.

“They choose their route very carefully,” he explains, noting that routes may be longer to ensure bees are not sitting on the truck in hot temperatures. “They watch the weather very carefully.”

How many bees are actually moved each year? It’s difficult to know for sure, but according to Nelson, more than 2 million beehives are moved into California just for almond season each year. That’s up to 120 billion bees being moved each year by nearly 5,000 truckloads of beehives – and that’s just for almond season. Once the growing season is over, those bees will be transported to their next location.

Transporting bees requires no specialized equipment, but it does require specialized care. Nelson says that most beekeepers prefer to work with drivers or carriers who are familiar with moving livestock. “Most of the drivers I’ve met along the way are drivers who have either hauled bees before or who have hauled livestock,” he adds.

Between 4 and 6 beehives are loaded onto a single pallet with a fully loaded flatbed hauling around 400 to 432 pallets stacked 3 or 4 high. With each hive holding as many as 60,000 bees, a single truck could transport nearly 26 million bees at a time. And the most interesting part is most drivers on the roads will have no idea there is a tractor-trailer loaded with bees next to them.

“They are all palletized and covered in nets when they move, so you can be right next to them and not even know it; it just looks like lumber,” Nelson says.

Nelson’s documentary, “The Pollinators,” is a look inside the commercial beekeeping industry. He says the film, expected to be released in 2018, will talk with the beekeepers about the declining bee population and their vital role in agriculture. Information on the film is available at www.thepollinators.net or on Instagram @pollinatorsfilm.