The size of a colony varies from an average of about 20,000 bees in early spring to as many as 50,000 in a well-managed colony late in the summer.
Most bees are hauled over the interstates between March 15 and June 15, or between Oct. 1 and Dec. 1. In the fall, bees are transported from the northern to the southern states, and the reverse is true in the spring.
Wayne Laufer has been hauling honey bees on flatbeds since the late 1970s.
Most of the runs he makes from his Hettinger, N.D. base, are to Texas and California. “I’d say the average run was 1,500 miles, usually three days. The main concern is the same as it always was – overheating,” Laufer says.
Heat can be a major bee killer.
“You can’t stop for more than a few minutes during a warm day’s run,” says a fellow North Dakota owner-operator, Lee Eberts, who has been hauling bees for almost 20 years. “You can wait until the last minute in the morning, just before they fly, to leave, but you can’t stop. You have to plan to buy your gas at night, even if it is two cents more. This is not a job for a guy who wants to go from truckstop to truckstop.”
Experienced bees haulers will wet the beehives down regularly on hot days. Some install sprinkler systems that mount atop the load. Sometimes the water is just to cool them, other times it is to supply drinking water and at other times – as when a load is sliding or falling – it will be to try and calm down a lot of very angry bees.
Like many of today’s highly professional bee haulers, Laufer carries his own bee suit and gear. “I pitch in, I want to know everything there is to know about the load so I can do the best job,” he says. “And I want to see they are safe.”
Laufer is bothered by the occasional non-pro bee hauler. “I see them stopped at truckstops in the middle of a hot day. I’d like to stop and go tell them how to do it right, but I can’t stop. It’s a few drivers like that who give us a bad name. I’ve seen signs saying ‘No Bee Trucks’ at truckstops, and that’s because of someone who stopped in the heat and had a long lunch. The bees got out and maybe stung someone. Shouldn’t happen.”
At truckstops, Laufer will try to find a parking spot away from most of the other trucks. At night, he tries to keep them away from bright lights that can get them agitated and moving. Drivers also ask DOT officers during nighttime stops not to shine flashlights on the bees.
Idling can be important for honey bee haulers. “The sound and vibration of the engine quiets the bees,” says Dave Miksa. “The loudness of the engine is not a problem. When bees use their wings to fan the air and keep the colony cool they can be as loud as the engine to someone standing next to the trailer.” When a driver is stuck in traffic, the decibels the bees emit gets louder and louder as they fan themselves to make up for the lost cooling airflow.
Hundreds of thousands of honey bees relish their Florida freedom after a tarped-down three-day haul from a Michigan winter. A good driver, like Thomas Meuchel, arrives with a healthy load.
The bee hauler’s biggest job is securing the load with a tarp or net properly. The load must not move, and none of the freight must be able to fly away. Dave Miksa uses tarps that are the same material other truckers use to keep dirt or foliage debris from flying off the back of open dump trailers. Loading and unloading is best at night, late evening or very early morning because the bees are quieter and will stay in the hives.
To the uninitiated, piles of dead bees left on the flatbed suggest things went wrong on the three days on the road. But a honey bee only lives for six weeks, so with a load of millions of bees it’s not uncommon for 5,000 or more to die, just as they would have if the hives had not been moved.
Bees can also be moved in refrigerated trailers. Dave’s son Ted Miksa, 21, who has now been operating his own beekeeping operation in Wisconsin and Florida for two years, says reefers generally cost more and can carry less bees. But they have some distinct advantages.