Hive Drive

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.”

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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.

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.

“By keeping the temperature even, around 38 degrees, the bees can stay in the reefer longer than you might want them on a flatbed. Obviously that’s an advantage in really hot weather,” he says.

“A trucker can also use them as a kind of staging point. He can leave the reefer running and go out and collect less-than-truckloads of colonies.”

Reefers work best in fall or winter when the outside air temp is closer to reefer temperature. Because bees keep inner hive temperatures about 92 degrees, the reefer can be hard to keep chilled.

Dave Miksa says that in the old days many beekeepers did their own hauling rather than rely on drivers who knew little or nothing about bees on flatbeds.

Beekeepers, he says, want to avoid drivers who “treat our loads as if they were just another load of steel or engine parts, drivers who leave the load and go home for a day, drivers who really don’t care whether the bees live or die.”

It took Meuchel two and a half days to haul his bees from Wisconsin to a pasture on Groveland farm. Accompanying him on every haul is Digger, a small black dog as enthusiastic for his life on the road as his master.

On this trip, Meuchel was hauling 45,000 pounds of honey bees on a 45-foot trailer. With the big trailer, he can get six more pallets of bees and run closer to his maximum. “I watered them every evening, somewhere at the back of the truckstop. If it’s too cold, I don’t mess with them at all because water can do a lot of damage,” says Meuchel.

The Miksas like Meuchel’s professionalism. He comes with his own bees suit, an indication of his dedication. “With the suit I can be in charge of the loading and unloading,” says Meuchel. “I can be sure everything is secure and the weight is right and the axles are right. A driver that doesn’t know bees just waits for the owner to load and drives away. That can be harmful to the bees and bad news for the driver if the owner really doesn’t know the dynamics of a trailer and the loading isn’t done right.”

Don’t Be Johnny Cash

Dark clothing, vibrations and quick movements can irritate a swarm

What do you do if your find yourself surrounded by a swarm of bees? You could heed the advice of Dr. Marion Ellis of the University of Nebraska.

“Bees are only defensive in the vicinity of their hive,” says Dr Ellis. “When foraging, their only instinct is to get away and return to their hive. But bees will defend their home and their food supply. Things that trigger defensive behavior around the hive include vibration, rapid movement and dark colors. The worst case imaginable near a colony would be Johnny Cash, “The Man in Black,” on a riding lawnmower, bumping into hives and swatting at the bees with his guitar.

“Do not attempt to open a hive unless you have a bee smoker that produces a lot of smoke. The smoke causes bees to load their honey stomach with honey and become disinclined to fly. Smoke also inhibits the bees’ ability to communicate alarm to their nest mates via chemical signal that guard bees release when the hive is disturbed.”

Veteran bee farmer Dave Miksa says that in addition to wearing light colors, he tries to avoid perfume, colognes or hair sprays, bright lights and loud noises.

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