Six Months on the Road: Inside the World of Migratory Beekeeping
Bees and other pollinators are a hardworking but often forgotten backbone of our food system. In order to get everywhere they need to be, beekeepers travel with hives for nearly half the year.
Every spring, beekeepers across the country ready their hives for the long drive west.
As California almond growers ready their groves for the incoming blossoms, a deluge of honey bees converges on the state—nearly two million hives worth. With roughly 1.5 million acres of almonds to pollinate, it takes a lot of bees to get those almonds ready to grow. After spending about two weeks in California, the bees pack up and hit the road again, ready for their next destination. This is just the first stop in an annual cross-country work trip.
They’ll hit blueberries in North Carolina and apples in Michigan, watermelon in Florida and pumpkins in New York. It’s a busy schedule and not for the faint of heart—especially when traveling in late winter to make it for those first spring blooms. “There were times when we had icy roads, and you’re trying to move equipment and materials around, and they’re shutting down roads,” says Glenn Card, vice president of Merrimack Valley Apiaries in Massachusetts. “One time it took us all day just to travel 100 miles between road closures and everything else.” Life on the road isn’t easy, no matter how small your traveling companions might be.
“These are livestock. They need water every couple of days,” says Dan Winter, president of the American Beekeeping Federation. “If you’re driving across the country and you don’t get rain, the driver has to get the hose out and actually water the bees down.” Winter says drivers hauling bees have to be experienced with handling livestock, and bees aren’t any different. “If a hive gets overheated on the truck, then, obviously, the bees aren’t really going to be up to shape to pollinate when they get where they’re going. It takes some practice and some time to get good at it.”
The bees travel in their hives on flatbed trucks, under layers of netting, in an effort to keep as many bees together as possible. A healthy colony has between 30,000 and 50,000 bees in it, with a queen able to lay up to 3,000 eggs a day. By the time the hive returns to its winter destination, nearly half of the original hive will have died off and been replaced. So, beekeepers will split hives to cover more ground as the season progresses.
“When we go to California, I kind of consider that to be the end of the year for the bees, because you’re taking last year’s bees, the ones that made it through the winter,” says Card. After California, the strongest bees get split between new hives. Some go to Louisiana for honey production, others go to New Jersey or New York for pollination and then on to Massachusetts. But the timing all depends on the weather. “This year, for example, we were in New York, which came on really fast and we had that hot spell of 80 degrees. And then it was another week and a half before Massachusetts really started going. Apples are a fast bloom. So, we have to do a lot of manipulation in the timing.”
Nearly 90 percent of all plants require pollinators to reproduce. Honey bees alone pollinate 80 percent of all flowering plants, more than 130 fruits and vegetables. As bees (and other pollinators) travel from flower to flower, pollen from one flower will stick to their little bodies and get transported to another flower. That new flower is now fertilized, which is how it produces fruit and seeds. But disease, loss of habitat for native pollinators and a warming climate have led bee species to plummet, with the number of managed bee colonies declining steadily since 1960. That means there is more demand on the bees–and beekeepers–that are available today.
Card is a third-generation beekeeper, and he now runs the apiary with his brother. In addition to the apples in the northeast, Card’s bees also travel to Maine to pollinate blueberries and then head up and down the East Coast to cranberry bogs. After all of that is done, the bees are off duty and overwinter in Louisiana.
Bees don’t hibernate, per se, but they do have a dormant period. They’ll still fly most days, but when there’s very little forage in the dead of winter, they will stay clustered together to conserve energy and keep their temperatures consistent. “They’ll send out scout bees, and if there’s nothing there, they just get to hunker down,” says Card.
There are about 125,000 beekeepers in the US, but the majority of those are backyard keepers, with fewer than 25 hives each. For those folks who want the benefits of bees without the work, there are rent-a-hive services, where the bees will come to you.
Mike James, owner and head beekeeper of Kinnikinnick Bees in Wisconsin, does what he calls “micro-disbursement.” Rather than sending his bees thousands of miles each year, they have a much shorter commute. “People pay lawn care companies to come in and manage their property,” says Jamess, and this is the same idea but with bees. “Our customers range from people that have 40-acre hobby farms to…people right in downtown Minneapolis.”
James and his bees service most of Wisconsin and Minnesota at the moment, but he is looking at a possible expansion to surrounding states. However, with most customers getting only a hive or two at a time, there are a lot of little details to look after, especially in urban centers. “They require flyway barriers, and to make sure there’s water, make sure they’re being provided a scope of work and management practices for the hive itself. Sometimes, there are fees and permits involved. I would say probably the most frustrating part of our job is all of the different regulations. There are still some townships and cities that don’t allow urban beekeeping.”
However, there are definite benefits to a smaller delivery and travel area with James’s bees. “We’re moving maybe 100, 200 miles at most. Because there are single hives in place, the concern for disease spread to other areas isn’t quite as great as it is with commercial beekeeping. That said, we still keep tight control on the health of each hive and won’t move anything if it’s unhealthy,” says James. There are limits to how many hives people can host in certain locations for both safety and density. Each spot needs at least 20 feet of clearance and an area with low traffic.
Plus, prospective hive owners or renters need to be prepared for possible hive thefts. In California last year, more than 1000 hives were reported stolen within a few weeks of early spring, prompting owners to install GPS and tracking devices on their hives. Fewer bees globally means a higher demand and lower supply, which could be contributing to a higher risk of theft.
But the benefit of bringing in pollinators is obvious from the first taste, says Card. A mono-floral honey, meaning a honey made from a single nectar source in a geographic region, has a distinct taste. “We have 10 different varieties that we sell currently,” says Card, “to establish that honey is more than just a sweetener.” For Card, distinct honeys are like spices, to be deployed in different dishes and in different amounts to get unique tastes.
It makes all the travel, pollination and planning worth it, says Winter. “Beekeeping is agriculture. We’re in the back; we’re not in the forefront of agriculture. But we’re a crucial part of agriculture.”
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