Just like worker bees themselves, three beekeepers and a truck driver went into loading mode early Saturday evening in Newberry.
They picked just the right time of day under a cloudy sky and cooling temperatures and just after 5 p.m. the task of loading 408 beehives began.
The honey bees had returned to their boxes and the cool temperatures caused them to come to a halt for the move. The hives were sitting four to a layer per pallet and stacked three layers high that reached over 7 feet tall.
In a field off of US Highway 27, those two parallel rows of 17 pallets stacked with 12 hives each added up to more than 20 million honey bees gathered from several beekeeping businesses for a full load.
According to Perry Green of Sleepy G’s Bees LLC, those 408 hives carry between 50,000 and 60,000 bees per hive.
Green combined his hives with some from High Springs beekeeper Brad Ruby’s, and beekeeper Matt Thomas from Natural Bridge Honey Farm in High Springs showed up with a forklift to help with loading.
The young bees have a job to do pollinating the blossoming almond trees in the California central valley next week. It’s known as the Super Bowl of Beekeeping and Florida is one of the biggest players in the effort to make sure 30 billion bees and their beekeepers accomplish the task of pollinating more than 18,000 square miles of almond orchards.
Billions of bees are trucked from Florida and other states to blueberry fields, watermelon fields, citrus groves and almond orchards all over the country.
Amy Vu, a state specialized agent from the University of Florida Bee Research and Extension Lab, said there are about 5,000 registered beekeepers in the state of Florida who manage approximately 700,000 colonies.
“Of those 5,000 beekeepers, about 500 of them are commercial beekeepers,” she said.
A commercial beekeeper has 100 or more colonies.
“These 500 individuals and businesses manage over 92 percent of those 700,000 colonies,” Vu said.
Florida ranks 6th in the nation as providers of honey bees for almond pollination in California, according to the 2021 U.S. Department of Agriculture report.
Green said that the young bees they sent out will return matured, larger and in better shape.
“When they come back they will be bigger,” Green said. “If you send ’em too big they’ll leave during the natural process of swarming. That’s their way of multiplying.”
Green entered the family business as a teenager and said he came back to it after a career in agriculture growing watermelon and vegetables.
Once the load is ready to go, Green said his trucker will face challenges along the three day trip to California.
“Most truckers run on e-logs,” he explained. The electronic logs track driving schedules and required breaks over long distances. Drivers of livestock or bees are exempt from some of those rules because their haul is sensitive to temperatures and weather conditions.
Congress passed a rule for bee haulers under the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act in 2016 that exempts drivers from the required 30-minute rest breaks. The request for exemption came from the California Farm Bureau Federation due to the need for beehives to have cool air to remain in the hive. Stops in the heat would stir the insects and cause them to start exiting the core as temperature rises.
According to Green, his driver will travel from sunset to sunrise over the next three days and be facing complicated weather conditions as he navigates winter storms along the way.
“They have to stay on the road dark to dark,” he said.
After a week in California, Green said the bees will come home.
Their annual schedule starts in September, Green said. Blueberries are the first crop they pollinate.
“January is blueberries, February the almonds bloom [from the] 10th to the 15th,” he said. “We are the last loads for our broker that is sending to California.”
The bees then move on to watermelon and then they make honey in North Florida, go up to South Carolina to make honey, then on to Cordelle, Georgia, to make Cotton Honey, which Green said is a bakery grade honey not the sweeter table honey.
Green said the order of loading the hives matters.
“The bottom box is the brood box with the main nest, queen and brood,” he said.
In a double brood box, the queen bee works her way up and down both boxes.
“When we bring them back, we split them and put a queen in the split and start another hive,” he said.
Ruby said the honey bees live for about 90 days and the queens can live to be a year or more but, “Stress affects their lifespan.”
Ruby’s main role during the loading was running the line of hives and using a smoker to settle any movement to keep the stress to a minimum and calm the insects.
Once the hives were stacked, the keepers cover the load in a mesh that helps secure the stacks and prevents bees from escaping.
Throughout the loading Ruby was also on the lookout for any ants encroaching on the hives which were set up on long plastic strips to prevent them from crawling from the field onto the hives.
When the delivery arrives at the California state line for inspection no ants can be on the load or the load could be rejected, Green and Ruby said.
Vu said the Honey Bee Research and Extension Laboratory work with beekeepers as advocates for their pollination efforts and the lab does research that focuses on pests and disease, honey bee nutrition and honey bee toxicology.
“We are advocates and help spread the word to help support the beekeeping industry,” Vu said.
“We conduct needs assessments with beekeepers to identify the biggest needs in the state and communicate those needs with researchers. We share information with the public (consumers) on how beekeepers contribute to the food we eat, and share the latest and greatest research going on around the world that relate to beekeepers.”