Bees by the Truckload

Wenceslas Hollar (17th c.)

“When you’re ready, I have a honey bee story that should blow you away.”

That was Don Fowler writing to me in January. He’s a forestry consultant who lives in British Columbia and travels frequently. Mostly on the trail of pine bark beetles in the Rocky Mountains—as he says, “Possibly the largest insect infestation in recorded history.”

Now Don is adding honey bees to his portfolio.

He was getting ready to leave for Bakersfield, California to hang out with the bee keepers. “A million and a half beehives will be arriving in the almond groves there in the next couple of weeks.”

At the time, I couldn’t quite imagine what he was talking about. Semis loaded with bees from Nebraska, Texas, Florida? Trucked to the Central Valley to pollinate almond trees? Doesn’t California have its own bees?

The answer is:  not nearly enough. Not in a monoculture like this–tens of thousands of acres planted with row after row after row of just one thing. No other plants allowed. Bees can’t live there year-round. And as Don says: No bees…no almonds.

The solution? Truck in massive numbers of migrant worker bees. By mid-February, when the almond trees are brilliant with blossoms, the bees have five weeks to get the job done.

Something in the way she moves

Earlier this month, I’m at the Environmental Film Festival at Yale, and there on a big screen is exactly what Don was telling me about. Endless acres of almond trees and truckloads of migrant bees.

The Queen?

The movie is Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us?  

The opening is captivating. A lithe woman moves slowly with her arms stretched to the sky. Her hair is braided to form a crown. Her upper body appears to be naked—except for a skin of honey bees. The bees are a living garment—covering her breasts and body perfectly.

The film draws you in like CSI: In 2006, beekeepers around the world began reporting a strange and troubling phenomenon — the population of their hives was shrinking dramatically, with the insects disappearing for reasons unknown to their minders, and in time close to a third of the world’s honeybee population had seemingly vanished.

Biologists and agriculturalists call it CCD—Colony Collapse Disorder—and the causes continue to elude researchers. The great fear is that honey bees are the canary in the coal mine. To treat bees as a commodity is to call down an ancient curse upon our heads.

Modify the monoculture

Don’s company [Contech] does innovative green tech R&D. He went to Bakersfield to test a new product in the almond orchards of a family owned empire—Paramount Farms. (Their website splash page features an iconic image of monoculture).  Almonds are a $2 billion-plus-a year industry in the U.S.–and it is almost entirely dependent on honey bees.  A very risky position to be in, so Paramount is investing in sustainable alternatives.

In February, Don and his team put their new product—called SuperBoost—into 4,600 migrant honey bee hives.  The name has obvious marketing punch–but it also refers to what beekeepers call the top part of a hive: the “super.”

He sends me a scientific paper that summarizes the way it works: In nature, honey bee larvae produce a pheromone which tells worker bees “we’re here, and we’re hungry.” SuperBoost… precisely reproduces the composition of the natural honey bee brood pheromone. In turn, the workers forage with increased intensity for pollen and nectar.   Nutrition of the larvae and the queen improves, the queen lays more eggs, and colony vigor is enhanced.

As Don says, in a time when CCD world wide is a huge problem, this has vast potential.

Apiarists after dark: a contest to see how many old (& empty) bee 'supers' they can stack and burn. New record: 23

“Honey bees love almond blossoms. If they arrive here in good shape they’ll  “spring build up” (population) fast. So much so, some of the keepers will  split their hives in the almond fields after bloom.  Then it’s off to the next stop on the HB highway. It’s a tough life. One of the bee keepers says they work them to death. There probably is some truth to that. Possibly contributing to CCD.”

What, then, is a sustainable solution?  Take out every tenth row or so of almond trees, and plant foliage that will support native bees year-round.  Modify the monoculture.

What are the bees telling us?

At the environmental film festival at Yale, Taggart Siegel–the director of Queen of the Sun–was on hand for a post-screening discussion. He defended his film’s combination of  mysticism and science.  He said he wants to show the film in Bakersfield–where everyone has a stake in the future of honey bees. [Find out where the film is playing here.]

It played at the Roxy Theatre on Gabriola Island on Earth Day eve–a ferry ride from Vancouver Island–which experienced devastating honey bee losses of 90% in 2009.

Don hasn’t seen the film yet, but he makes an observation that could well be in it:  The bee keepers that really manage their hives well…have less losses. Those that do this for the money and expect more with less…don’t do very well. I am beginning to understand that good bee keeping is an art.

Honey bees and Humans are equally complex.

The San Joaquin Valley, California


  • Photos courtesy Don Fowler (except Queen of the Sun & San Joaquin)
  • A new article in Science News delves into the search for “back-up bees” and other alternative pollinators.
  • Article from England: “Bees Facing Poisonous Spring”
  • See photographer Eric Tourneret’s website The Bee Photographer for a fascinating slide show of migrant bee truckers.

About John Wackman

A writer since I learned to hold a pencil (no, not like that...hold it like this!). Long-time writer/producer for television, now organizer of Repairs Cafes in the Hudson Valley (13 & counting!) -- Program Manager of Solarize Hudson Valley, non-profit, state supported, community sponsored renewable energy program. We're all re-inventing ourselves. It's a sci-fi world, isn't it?
This entry was posted in Climate change + Culture, Deep Ecology, John Wackman blog and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Bees by the Truckload

  1. Linda Nickerson says:

    And here in my own backyard (southern CT), I read this story in our local paper under the headline: “The Secret Life and Death of Bees…mystery of Killingworth bee kill-off solved.”

    Quite a wake-up call, right?

  2. Penny McCrea says:

    Interestingly, Paramount Farms’ website emphasizes sustainability, but I couldn’t find a word about bees or CCD.

    I just saw Queen of the Sun, and while it was beautifully shot it was short on the pragmatic stuff. I mean, if almonds in the U.S. are a $2 billion enterprise, there’s no way it’s not addressing the demise of its vital pollinator. Still, I appreciated learning about the biodynamic way of beekeeping.

    — Penny

  3. cait says:

    Thanks for writing about this and drawing attention to what looks like a great film. I’ll keep an eye out for it.

  4. There was a screening of “Queen of the Sun” at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, WV on May 10. It was co-sponsored by the American Conservation Film Festival (November 3-6, 2011), was very well attended and followed by a lively talk-back with Taggart Siegel. What I liked most about the film was the way it combined art and science and how very connected people get to bees once they start to study or work with them. I can certainly understand intellectually the importance of bees to our world, but the people featured in this film are passionate, and that really comes across. I think everyone should see it. Thanks for writing about this John.

  5. marai wise says:

    It’s that 1 way/1 thing /no diversity mentality @ work once again… find what is cheapest to do(to make the most$$ most quickly), less work for humans(employ fewer), and …whether it be 1 potato( for french fries of course) dominating the market, tasteless huge strawberries(have we forgotten what they really taste like?), or a monoculture mindset once again, that affects bees, and contributes to CCD. I am working to bring Queen of the Sun to Lewisburg…talking to the Bee clubs, local theatre venues, and the creators of the movie. Your blog topic is very pertinent, and personal. Little do we know how dependent on the little Honeybee we are. They ARE complex! I wrote a paper back in college in a Linguistics class about their language and have been a fascinated fan of this amazing insect ever since. I believe in science and magick. Bees, like humans, inhabit both areas and need both to be fully understood.

  6. Pingback: Waiting for the Bees to arrive | Luscious Laurent Honey

  7. Mark Leech says:

    Fascinated by your article. Found it looking for images of the Almond pollination in the Central Valley. I am researching a book for the Rural Reserach R&D Corp in Australia title Planting for Pollen and Nectar. Looks like they could surely use some supporting plants there. I really like your images and was wondering if I could use them in the book, published on a not-for profit basis. Please email me as I’m a bit blog challenged. Kind regards Mark Leech

  8. Joy Window says:

    As far as I know, we don’t have colony collapse disorder in Australia yet, but we’re still affected by it because so much of our food is imported.

    • John Wackman says:

      “Queen of the Sun” is playing now in several cinemas in New Zealand (part of it was filmed there). Go to the film website to find out how to help get the film to Australia–a short leap!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s