Hive Drive

| April 07, 2005

Thomas Meuchel pilots a 1979 Kenworth W900 – a truck he rebuilt by himself after it had been wrecked.

Remember the movie The Sting?

Paul Newman, Robert Redford. In the end, the outsider thinks he is seeing one thing (an illegal but honest gambling den) but he was actually seeing something else (it was illegal but it wasn’t honest).

It’s like that when most people look at a truck hauling millions of honey bees. The load looks ordinary, but under the flatbed’s tarp or inside the reefer, you hear: bzzzzzzzzzz.

“People can get a surprise,” says Thomas Meuchel, a driver for Green River Trucking of Dickenson, N.D, “especially people at the weigh stations or maybe DOT officers who stop you. And drivers who park next to you at truckstops, too. Sometimes bees can generate more heat than a hot truck, and sometimes they can make more noise than the trucks around them. They can get your attention even when you can’t see them.”

Meuchel (pronounced Michael) is a driver whom bee farmers or “apiarists” like. He is part of the next generation of over-the-road haulers, 21 years old and behind the wheel only since June. But his youthful enthusiasm for his 1979 Kenworth W900 and for his career would surely delight old-timers wondering if the new generation of drivers will be up to snuff.

Meuchel’s father David is a partner in Green River Trucking with family friend, Nila Rorvik, who joined her leased trucks with David’s to form the company. “One of the reason we did that was so that we could hire Thomas. We couldn’t find another company to take on a 21-year-old diver with no over-the-road experience and a ’79 Kenworth,” Rorvik says. Thomas is the third youngest of trucking brothers. In addition to his father, a lifetime trucker, he has several uncles who also drive OTR.

In Groveland, a small town in central Florida, Dave Miksa, a veteran apiarist, has a honey farm. But not only do his bees produce honey, they pollinate fruit and vegetable crops all over America. It’s primarily for pollination that billions of honey bees ride the country’s interstates. “Moving them is nothing new,” says Miksa. “I used to drive my own tractor-trailer back in the ’50s. Even then it wasn’t new. Bees were moved around the country by rail over a hundred years ago.”

Bees, which are classified as livestock when hauled over the road, are vital to the ecosystem. “Few people realize that bee pollination is a vital link in the food chain for more than one third of the food we eat,” says honey bee expert Dr. Marion Ellis, a professor of entomology at the University of Nebraska.

“Without their good work we would not enjoy apples, cherries, plums, watermelons, squash, pumpkins, cantaloupe, almonds raspberries, cranberries, blueberries, cucumbers,” Ellis says. “Over 95 crops growing in the U.S. depend on bees for pollination.”

Beekeepers estimate that about 70 percent of the pollination that takes place in agricultural fields comes from honey bees brought into the area. The rest comes from local bees, and factors like the wind, moths and insects.

“We don’t think that there is any doubt that if you truck in honey bees you get better crops,” says Dave Westervelt, an inspector/ researcher with the Florida Department of Agriculture. “You get a more uniform size of fruit or vegetables, and you get far higher production. Relying on local pollination is a risk.”

Meuchel, joined by his dog, Digger, unstraps the bee hives as beekeeper Dave Miksa pitches in to help.

Two and a half million colonies of bees are rented out each year to pollinate crops worth $18 billion, according to Ellis. He estimates that about 3 million colonies are trucked across American highways every year, including those moved more than once. A beekeeper concentrating on using his bees for pollination may move them six to eight times, whereas a honey production operation may only move once or twice, says Ellis.

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