Why Modern Agriculture Relies On Driving Honeybees Around The Country

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To say that fruits and vegetables come from nature is a bit of an overstatement. Though it could technically grow in the wild, the organic apple you buy in the supermarket was grown with human intervention at every step, from the planting to the pollinating to the harvesting. That's right, the pollinating. Farmers don't leave pollination of their crops up to the whims of whatever bees are around. Instead, the agriculture industry practices what's known as "migratory beekeeping"—basically, taking honeybees on road trips.

Are We There Yet?

Why would you need to drive bees across the country? Don't bees exist everywhere? Yes, but not in great enough numbers. For example, there are 90 million almond trees that cover about 800,000 acres of Southern California. Around the beginning of February, the trees begin to bloom, each at various times depending on the variety. Once each flower is mature, it needs pollen from a different variety of almond tree in order to produce nuts, and it will only accept that pollen for a short five-day window. That's a whole lot of pollinating in a small amount of time, and local pollinators can only do so much. The answer? Teams of fuzzy foreign contractors trucked in from all over the country.

Loading a honeybee colony onto a tractor-trailer isn't easy, but it's possible. Beekeepers ensure the bees build their hives in boxes, which are easier to stack in trucks. Since bees return to their hives at sundown, workers begin loading the boxes in the middle of the night and finish before the sun rises. They drape nets over them to keep the bees from escaping and getting lost on the journey, load up the hives with car snacks in the form of sugar syrup and pollen patties, then start up the engine and begin the drive. Once they reach their destination, workers open the boxes, where—if all goes well—tens of thousands of bees per hive fly out to stretch their legs and take in their surroundings.

A Blessing And A Curse

Almonds are just one stop on the honeybees' massive manmade migration. As Scientific American reports, "After the almond bloom some beekeepers take their honeybees to cherry, plum and avocado orchards in California and apple and cherry orchards in Washington State. Come summertime, many beekeepers head east to fields of alfalfa, sunflowers and clover in North and South Dakota, where the bees produce the bulk of their honey for the year. Other beekeepers visit squashes in Texas, clementines and tangerines in Florida, cranberries in Wisconsin and blueberries in Michigan and Maine." The fruits and nuts you buy in the store are almost guaranteed to have been pollinated by a cross-country honeybee.

Of course, the trip can cake a toll on a bee colony, as can the spread viruses and depleted nutrition that come from pollinating one type of plant with so many other bees. Some experts point to migratory beekeeping as a main reason for why so many bees are dying off, though pesticides, parasites, drought, and reduced genetic diversity also play big roles. In response, some are trying to revive native bee species to give the travelers a rest. But for now, pollinators drive in from out of state, and you have them to thank for your fresh produce.

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Written by Ashley Hamer April 4, 2017

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