Transporting Bees Locally and to California for Almond Pollination

honeybee hives in a holding yard // Wayward Spark

For most of the year, Henry maintains apiaries of 20 to 30 hives in relatively remote locations in the Coast Range. He decides on ecologically appropriate numbers for each yard by assessing the nectar and pollen resources available at any given time, and he’s careful not to exceed the carrying capacity of the area, especially late in the season. Keeping bees in such low to moderate-density clusters allows bees to fulfill their needs with natural forage (plus seasonal supplements) and discourages robbing. Because Henry is breeding his own lines of bees, he also tries to keep virgin queens away from other people’s maintained hives, so he can incorporate genetics of local, feral-derived bees into his managed colonies.

There are downsides to keeping hives in remote locations. The travel times and fuel expenses associated with maintaining hives in far-flung areas are much greater than keeping larger groups of bees closer to home. There are bears and yahoos out in the boonies that might mess with hives. The roads are rougher and often less accessible, increasing the amount of loading and unloading that must be done by hand. (Each hive weighs about 100 pounds and must be lifted using a crazy amount of finger muscles onto a truck bed that’s 43 inches high.)

In contrast, there are resident beekeepers in parts of the Central Valley in California who keep yards of up to 120 hives. The only way to sustain these hives is by feeding corn syrup and pollen supplements in place of natural flows almost year round. This approach to beekeeping is super cost intensive, and hives in this situation are never able to store honey, let alone produce enough for the beekeepers to harvest any substantial quantity. It’s kind of the cattle feedlot equivalent in beekeeping.

beehives in a holding yard // Wayward Spark

A while back, Henry got permission from the landowner to use a large gravel lot that’s easily accessible and relatively close to home as a temporary holding yard (seen in the photos in this post) in trade for several jars of honey. In preparation for transporting all his bees to California for almond pollination, Henry has had to round up all his hives and bring them into this holding yard.

It’s only feasible to move hives in cool and/or dark hours, so nights and early mornings are best. In the last week, Henry took six trips to pick up hives from seven different apiaries. He’d leave the house around 3 pm to start loading around 4:30, and he wouldn’t get home until 8 or 9 pm. Often times, he’d be off again the next morning at 5 to get another load.

We have an ASV skid steer with forks that can lift pallets of hives, but it’s not possible or efficient to use it to load out all his yards. Hauling equipment makes driving riskier (especially in the dark) and more expensive. Not all of Henry’s yards can be accessed by a truck with a trailer, and counting on equipment to do the job also can lead to disappointment and hassle when things break down or don’t work as smoothly as was hoped. In the end, Henry hauled the skid steer to four apiaries to load hives onto the truck, and he loaded another 50 hives in three apiaries by hand.

hauling beehives // Wayward Sparktransporting beehives // Wayward Spark

Henry is filling an almond pollination contract with a team of relatively small but well established beekeepers, some based in Oregon and the others in California near the almond orchards. The Oregon beekeepers offered to share the semi they were using to transport bees to California, which is great because Henry doesn’t have enough hives to fill a semi on his own, and by sharing, he and the other beekeepers can also share the expense. The drawback is that Henry still needed to move all his bees from the local holding yard to the other beekeepers’ home base on the east side of the Willamette Valley, about an hour and a half away from our house.

Our friend Stu, an amateur beekeeper who doesn’t mind getting stung a few times, offered up his services and his flatbed farm truck to help with the move. Henry used the skid steer to double stack pallets of bees, and then he loaded a total of 112 hives onto Stu’s truck. Henry took another 16 full-sized hives plus another 32 singles on his own truck, a flatbed Mitsubishi Fuso. Henry and Stu drove in the dark to the other beekeepers’ place where there was a forklift operator ready to unload the bees into the holding yard there. It took Henry and Stu about six hours round trip to deliver all of Henry’s hives. Henry paid Stu for his time, fuel, and effort.

beehives // Wayward Spark

A couple days later, the other beekeeper loaded all of his as well as Henry’s bees into a semi and sent them off to the Sacramento Valley in California where the Californian partner beekeeper unloaded them all. The most recent news is that Henry’s bees are settled somewhat comfortably in a holding yard there.

Henry will leave tonight in his own truck hauling another 40 nucs down south. His plan is to work his bees for three or four days, getting them set up for the hustle of pollination and the growth spurt that comes with warmer weather and a good nectar flow as well as supplemental syrup. His Californian beekeeper friend, the one who will be negotiating their contract with the almond grower, has generously offered to let Henry stay in his home for the week, so Henry won’t have too many traveling expenses beyond fuel and some food.

We hope to have Henry home by next weekend, but his bees will stay in California for over a month. After he heads north, his bees will be moved once again to the almond orchards that are about 40 minutes away from the holding yard. They’ll be on contract starting around February 1.

There are a lot of ways that little and big things can go wrong in this business, so I’ve got my fingers crossed that everything goes smoothly for all the people, all the bees, and all the vehicles/equipment.