Episode 756: The Bees Go To California

Feb 24, 2017

Every spring convoys of trucks arrive in the almond orchards of central California. They are carrying bees. Millions of them.

They arrive from all over the country, but especially southern states like Louisiana, and they have to get there at just the right time, when the almond trees start to flower so the bees can pollinate hundreds of acres of almond fields.

But why make the 2,000 mile trek from the South instead of raising bees right in the Central Valley? It comes down to comparative advantage. Louisiana has better conditions for bees. It's warm, green and there are plenty of flowers for the bees. And California has the edge in almond growing.

The journey has it's own set of challenges. Not least of which is, you can't stop during the day or the bees try to escape.

Today on the show, how bees keep our produce sections stocked with fruit.

Music: "Turquoise Sun" and "Cheyenne Shuffle." Find us: Twitter/ Facebook.

Subscribe to our show on iTunes or PocketCast.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

Imagine you are a bee, a honeybee. And every morning, you wake up in the greatest place on earth.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Hawaii.

SMITH: Not Hawaii. You are a bee. You are waking up in rural Louisiana.

WES CARD: You've got your cypress trees. You've got your flowering plants and legumes. You see your blue vervain. You see your buckwheat vine. You see your tallow trees.

SMITH: That is the voice of your boss, Wes Card. Well, technically, you work for the queen bee and she works for Wes, but the job you have is pretty cush (ph).

W. CARD: You're collecting nectar, making honey.

VANEK SMITH: Wes takes your honey, sells your honey. You're like a team.

SMITH: It's idyllic. But in February, one night while you were sleeping, you hear it - a forklift coming for your hive and all of the surrounding hives.

W. CARD: And we start picking them up and moving them around and setting them on new pallets. And we then come in with the machines and stack them onto the truck and the journey begins.

SMITH: The journey.

VANEK SMITH: The truck will be taking you and 15 million of your closest bee friends on a road trip.

W. CARD: Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

SMITH: Two thousand miles in all to the almond fields in the Central Valley where you will have a new job - pollinating the almond flower, making little almond babies.

What would happen if you didn't ship bees to California?

W. CARD: If anybody didn't ship bees, then you would see a lot of empty shelves in the grocery stores. No blueberries. No almonds. No strawberries. No squash. No pumpkins. No - I mean, the list goes on. No oranges. No citrus.

SMITH: So the mission these bees are on is to prevent a fruit and nut apocalypse.

W. CARD: Correct.

SMITH: You are a Louisiana bee, and you are about to save the world.

VANEK SMITH: Or feed it, anyway. Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith. Right now, almost every single commercial bee in the United States of America is on the way to the almond fields of California.

VANEK SMITH: The size of this mass migration is stunning. In the span of a few weeks, 30 billion bees will be shipped from around the country to the Central Valley. They will pollinate enough flowers to create 700 billion almonds.

SMITH: Today on the show we are going to follow the beekeepers who basically pull off a logistical miracle. The birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees cannot do it alone.

VANEK SMITH: We are going to need a lot of trucks.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRESH TUNES SONG, "TURQUOISE SUN")

VANEK SMITH: This whole bee migration was something we did not know about until we got an email from a listener, Buck Marcussen. He told us that around Valentine's Day, if you drive through Central California the highways are filled with honeybees.

SMITH: Trucks full of hungry, angry honeybees, billions of them being driven from all corners of the country, converging on the almond fields. Which, when you picture it, just seems insane.

VANEK SMITH: And we nominated you, Robert Smith, to go check this out. Put on a bee suit.

SMITH: The whole journey started, at least for me and my bees, in Bunkie, La. If you picture Louisiana as a boot, Bunkie's right at the ankle bone. To get there you drive along the bayou. It's flat, open land. And then all of a sudden you see what looks like a thousand silver file cabinets just sitting out in a field. These are the beehives. Now, they told me to get to the farm right at sunset when the sky turns deep purple. You only want to move bees at night.

W. CARD: Well, bees always naturally return to the hive after sundown.

SMITH: So if you tried to move them before sundown they wouldn't be able to find their hive.

W. CARD: Yes. You'd leave a bunch of them here lost with nowhere to go.

SMITH: The beekeeper, Wes Card, he doesn't bother to wear a bee suit most of the time. He has this stance that almost dares the bees to sting him. He has his elbows out, his feet wide apart. You can actually see a few bees crawling in his long goatee.

W. CARD: Actually, they - I'd rather them getting stuck - caught in the beard than stinging me in the chin. So that's why I have a beard (laughter).

SMITH: So have you been stung a lot? I'm going to step back one more because this one's actually hitting the back of my head.

W. CARD: Let's go back here.

SMITH: Wes shows me around. They extract honey in a shed out in the back. The bee wranglers all live in a double-wide trailer by the road. And the hives are zipping by on forklifts. Now, only bee colonies with a thick blanket of bees get picked for the California trip. They want the strongest ones. So Wes pries open the tops one by one to check.

W. CARD: So you can see that hive has very few bees.

SMITH: Well, it looks like there's hundreds, but...

W. CARD: Well, hundreds is not very many.

SMITH: So what happened to this hive?

W. CARD: That's a good question.

SMITH: These days in the bee business, it is just a fact of life. Bees are dying at a higher rate than they used to. So Wes raises two hives for every one that they ship out.

W. CARD: You can have thousands of hives lined up that just are not ready to go to California, that are weak or dead or just not surviving for...

SMITH: And that's...

W. CARD: ...Unknown reasons.

SMITH: And that's happened to you?

W. CARD: Oh, sure. I think it's happened to every beekeeper at some point or another.

SMITH: But this year is a good year. They have a thousand hives just here tonight wrapped, stacked, ready to go. The bee wranglers add some yellow bee food in the top. It's kind of a sack lunch for the three-day trip. And then when it is fully dark the tractor trailer pulls up. They have sent 24 trucks out to California just in the last couple of weeks.

Hundreds of other bee farms are doing this same thing from all around the country - from Florida, from South Carolina, from Oregon, from the Dakotas. And when I was talking to Wes' brother, Glenn - he's in charge of this whole loading process - he said, listen, like, this is what beekeepers have done forever.

GLENN CARD: I mean, they've been moving bees around the country for decades. And, you know, in the 1800s they were moving them on the back of horses. So it's a natural kind of migratory thing for the bees.

SMITH: There's nothing natural about this.

G. CARD: What's not natural about it?

SMITH: It's the fact that you're putting a thousand hives onto the back of a truck and sending it to California tonight.

G. CARD: But this - they're there to perform a natural function. It's just we've made that function more efficient.

SMITH: (Laughter) That's one way to put it.

G. CARD: Yeah.

SMITH: Every almond you have ever eaten required a bee, a single bee, a bee to move the pollen from the flower of one almond tree to the flower of a different almond tree. And there are enough bees in California to pollinate a small almond crop. But over the last few decades, almonds have just taken off - almond milk, almond butter, low-carb almond snack packs. And Glenn Card, the bee guy, says the almond growers, they saw this whole thing coming.

G. CARD: Twenty years ago, they started planning acres and acres and acres of almonds, anticipating this demand - increase in demand. And as those acres come into - you know, as they age they require more beehives.

SMITH: More beehives than the beekeepers of California could possibly provide. Wes and Glenn told me that when their grandfather started the business back in Massachusetts, of course he kept the bees close to the crops. That's what you did back then. But after the Interstate Highway System was built, it made sense to grow bees, you know, where it was warm and there were lots of flowering plants. It made sense to move the whole operation to Louisiana. And then all you needed was a lot of trucks.

So it turns out you can put 15 million bees on the back of a truck in about 20 minutes. It's amazing. They staple this huge net over the hives. And you can see the bees inside pushing to get out. The lucky driver who gets to babysit these bad boys all the way to Firebaugh, Calif? Kermit Jones.

KERMIT JONES: Alrighty (ph). And this going to Firebaugh.

G. CARD: Yeah.

JONES: I just need to sign it?

G. CARD: No, you're good.

JONES: Alrighty.

SMITH: Kermit says the hardest part of driving bees is the schedule because if you stop the truck during the day while it is light out the bees will try to escape. And they're wily. They can sort of get through the nets. So you have to keep the truck moving. You have to keep the hive sort of vibrating to calm them down. So Kermit drives for 11 hours straight.

JONES: You know, you start early in the morning, make sure you got your fuel and everything. And then, you know, you drive till they kind of calm down a little bit.

SMITH: What if you need to go to the bathroom?

JONES: Oh, then keep a couple cups or something like that, you know (laughter).

SMITH: I was going to ask to ride with you.

JONES: (Laughter).

SMITH: But maybe not.

Tomorrow night, these bees will be sleeping somewhere at a truckstop in Amarillo, Texas. Kingman, Ariz. is their stop the next night. Then it's a long haul to the California border and an orchard in Firebaugh.

VANEK SMITH: And, of course, there is a whole other side to this story because out in California there is a fierce competition going on to get the best bees. I mean, the entire success of an almond crop can really depend on the bees that are trucked in from halfway across the country, so people in the Central Valley have been preparing for months for this big bee convergence.

SMITH: Yeah, I think of it as a convention, like Bee Con 2017.

VANEK SMITH: Yes, it's like spring break for bees.

SMITH: Spring break. It's Cabo, baby.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) Cabo for bees.

SMITH: So I flew into San Francisco a day ahead of the bees. I drove over the hills to the Central Valley. And I was told I really need to talk to the person who knows everything and everyone, the bee broker. She's easy to spot because she's the one in the field with the pink bee suit.

DENISE QUALLS: It's a pale pink, so the bees do like it. Not that I'm a fashionista, but I just couldn't do the white. And so this way people will know it's me.

SMITH: Denise Qualls runs the Pollination Connection. She hooks up beekeepers with almond growers. In fact, she's the one making the deals for our Louisiana bees on the way. Denise had her pink bee suit set up so she can take cell phone calls on a headset from inside the bee suit. And people - as I talked to her, they never stopped calling. There are the panicked bee drivers stopped at the California state border inspections, desperate almond growers.

QUALLS: So I've gotten pictures today of flooded orchards. I've got a forklift stuck this morning. And my phone's ringing again. Let's see who that is. Someone is calling looking for some bees. So I need to give them a call and find out what it is I can do for them.

SMITH: The almond flowers are about to bloom, so this is like crunch time. And it's funny to watch her because as Denise chats on the phone she also starts to, like, pry open the different beehives in front of her because part of her job is also checking to make sure that the bees survive the trip.

QUALLS: Oh, man, look at that one. Ooh.

SHANE ROSS: Pretty.

QUALLS: Look at them go.

SMITH: Yeah, we're kind of being swarmed a little bit here. But that's good. That means they're super excited...

QUALLS: Yes.

SMITH: ...Bees.

QUALLS: Yes. And they've been here for a few days, so I'm pleasantly surprised with the activity. Wow.

SMITH: Denise has to check these days because nothing is normal in beekeeping anymore. There's this problem with the bees called colony collapse disorder. They first noticed it in 2006. And then suddenly sometimes overnight, like, a hive would just die. It would empty out. The bees would be gone and no one knew why. While I was out there with Denise, Shane Ross, who is one of her helpers - he's sort of tending to the bees in this field - he says that he thinks that it is no one cause. His pet theory is that it is all of them.

ROSS: It's the pesticides, the herbicides, the radio waves, changing agriculture, loss of bee habitat and bee forage leading to poor nutrition. The bees starve to death in some areas. There's just nothing for them to work. It's death by a thousand paper cuts.

SMITH: Because it's like a mystery, it creates this real sense of distrust from the beekeepers who, like, love their hives. They obviously make a living off their hives. And they just drop them off in these fields. And they're constantly asking, well, wait a minute. Are they being sprayed with pesticides? Are the farmers taking care of the bees?

QUALLS: Well, and I imagine this is stressful for the almond growers, Too, right? I mean, they might be worried that there aren't going to be bees anymore or that there aren't going to be enough bees and the price might go way up.

SMITH: Yeah, and it has. A decade ago, you could rent a hive for a month for about 50 bucks. Now it costs a $185 for a single hive for the season. And that can start to add up. This truck of bees that we're following is going to a single orchard, and the rental charges for all the bees comes to around $100,000. But so far, at least, almond growers don't have much of a choice but to pay the bee guys.

So this is - this is the tree.

KYLE ROBERTSON: This is an almond tree.

SMITH: Does it have a technical name, or do you just call it almond tree?

ROBERTSON: There's two varieties here. There's Butte and Padres.

SMITH: This is Kyle Robertson. He is an almond grower in Tracy, Calif. And over the next month these trees will be pollinated by bees from Louisiana, Wes Card's bees. Right now the two kinds of trees, the Buttes and the Padres, look totally barren. But by next week this orchard will be transformed with flowers so beautiful that Kyle took his engagement photos here.

ROBERTSON: Here is one picture here.

SMITH: Whoa. It looks like the cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C.

ROBERTSON: Cherry blossoms, yeah.

SMITH: It's gorgeous.

ROBERTSON: With white petals everywhere. Then you'll see white petals on the ground so it almost looks like snow - a snow-covered tree with a little bit of snow dust on the ground.

SMITH: The flowers are small, about the size of a silver dollar. And they're delicate. And the bee has to carry the pollen from the Butte to the Padre and the Padre to the Butte, deposit it just perfectly to make a single almond.

All right, so a series of - a series of dumb questions.

ROBERTSON: Go for it.

SMITH: Why can't you just hire people to take the pollen from one tree and move it to the other tree?

ROBERTSON: You can. It's just going to take you forever to do it.

SMITH: Why not just get a plane filled with pollen and you could just...

ROBERTSON: Synthetic.

SMITH: ...Dust the...

ROBERTSON: Synthetic, yeah. Synthetic's been looked at. But again, it's - it hasn't shown to be any better than natural pollination with bees.

SMITH: Why not just develop a tree that doesn't need a bee to pollinate it?

ROBERTSON: You do. There's self pollinating trees that were - they're called - a variety called Independence in California. That's more the popular one. You don't necessarily need bees to pollinate it.

SMITH: And the self-pollinating tree is slowly catching on. But the almonds are not exactly what buyers are expecting.

ROBERTSON: They taste different.

SMITH: Different.

VANEK SMITH: That does not sound like a ringing endorsement.

SMITH: Different is good. I kept trying to talk to Kyle about how strange this whole bee shipping situation is. Like, I'm trying all these theories out on him. You know, is this the end of nature? Or maybe you just reached the limit of the amount of almond trees you can possibly plant. But he says, like, I am talking like a news reporter from New York City. I don't understand the way nature works.

ROBERTSON: And you think bear in - a bear in the wild collecting a bee hive off the top of a tree and knocking it down to eat the honey out of it. That's what I think people's image of it, almost the...

SMITH: That's exactly how I imagine bees, that they are this symbol of wild, uncontrolled, humanless nature. And so that's why it feels weird when you put them on a truck and drive them 2,000 miles.

ROBERTSON: I can understand that (laughter). I can understand why someone feels that way.

SMITH: But then he says, like, remember, these honeybees were not native to North America. They were brought over from Europe. And the almond trees, they didn't originally grow here. They came from the Middle East. They came from Spain. There is nothing wild or humanless about any part of the almond situation. I mean, it is food. It is produced on a mass scale for the lowest cost possible. And it really is massive. As I drive around the Central Valley, I can go dozens of miles and see nothing but almond trees, almond trees after almond trees after almond trees. And then I get the call.

Hey, I'm just coming into Firebaugh. Oh, sorry, go on.

It's Wes card. The Louisiana bees have arrived. He gives me directions to an orchard and says, meet me at sunset. And I might want to wear a bee suit for this one.

W. CARD: But we're going to want to walk a little bit further back here as we get ready to pull the screens.

SMITH: This is it. This is the moment. They are pulling the nets off of the hives. Now, remember, the bees have not been able to fly for three days. And when the nets come down, they start to swirl around the truck. It is like a funnel cloud that rises above the fields that gets sort of larger and larger.

I know you love them, but it kind of feels like we're in a horror film right now.

W. CARD: Yeah, there's a lot here.

VANEK SMITH: That sounds terrifying, Robert.

SMITH: It was actually a little terrifying even in a bee suit. And what they're doing is when a bee is in a new place, I was told, they are circling, trying to sort of memorize the new landscape. They're trying to figure out where their hive is and what the hell's going on because they just woke up in California.

VANEK SMITH: Are you sure they're not, like, trying to figure out who did this to them and punish them terribly (laughter)?

SMITH: You know, I asked Wes about that.

Do you think they hate you?

W. CARD: I think they like it. We bring them to places that bring all kinds of fun things.

SMITH: You know, that's what dads always say to their kids and the kids hate it.

W. CARD: But, I mean, as far as the bees are concerned, you know, right now they're probably not liking it too much because we've got another three or four days before the bloom starts. But once the bloom is in - once the bloom is off, then it's pretty much an all-you-can-eat buffet for the next three to four weeks.

SMITH: But, Stacey, after the bloom is over in a month, there will not be a flower or food source to be found in miles. And that's really the other reason why you can't just keep all of the 30 billion bees in California, you know, for next year. They're already here. But the bees would starve once the almond flowers go away.

VANEK SMITH: So Wes has to bring them back to Louisiana. Like, he has to do the whole process in reverse.

SMITH: The whole process - putting the food in, loading them on the truck, putting the net on, bringing them back on the interstate, three days. And then they go for the apple season in New York state, blueberries in Maine, cranberries in Cape Cod.

VANEK SMITH: Join the pollination service, see the world?

SMITH: I know. It seems sweet. I mean, there is a small caveat 'cause bees only survive a month. So basically, the hives that return to Louisiana are filled with mostly newbies. I mean, I guess technically born in California bees. There are generations that are born on the road in the Northeast.

VANEK SMITH: So I understand why this is happening, but it still seems crazy to me.

SMITH: And, you know, if you push the beekeepers hard enough they will say yes, it is a little crazy. They just, like, literally could not come up with a better way to do this.

W. CARD: If you could move the trees, I'm sure they would move the trees to the bees. But...

SMITH: They can't do that.

W. CARD: Right. Well, we've always hoped that someday we could just train the bees to fly themselves to wherever they need to go. But we haven't been able to figure that out yet.

VANEK SMITH: That would be - that would be something, training the bees to fly to California.

SMITH: I think he's joking. But after seeing the kind of logistics that I saw, I'm not entirely sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WHISKEY POETS' "CHEYENNE SHUFFLE")

SMITH: You know, I never got to see the full bloom, the full, like, extent of all the flowers in the Central Valley. And so if you happen to be driving through, take a picture. I would love to see it.

VANEK SMITH: You can email it to us, planetmoney@npr.org, or send it to us on Facebook or Twitter.

SMITH: Our episode today was produced by Elizabeth Kulas. And I want to thank the entire Card family and their many companies. They have Merrimack Valley Apiaries, West Coast Pollination. And if you wanted to try the honey made by the bees in this episode, it's called Crystal's Honey.

VANEK SMITH: And if you are looking for something else listen to, check out NPR's All Songs Considered. They sift through the nearly 2,000 albums published each week to bring you the best of what's just been released. You can find All Songs Considered on the NPR One app or wherever you get your podcasts. Also, we are on the hunt for the next PLANET MONEY intern. Come and work with us. We would love to have you. Come pitch ideas and help us edit our shows and hang out. You can find all the details on our website, npr.org/money. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WHISKEY POETS' "CHEYENNE SHUFFLE")

SMITH: There is one last thing that I had to see before I left the scene. I had to see the actual pollination. You know, the deed, the bees gone wild. And as I was driving, I spotted it. On the side of the road, there was one almond tree that was already in bloom. And so I got out of my car.

Oh, look, look, look, look, there's a bee right in it right now. Right now. Look. I don't know if you can hear it, but a bee is basically hugging the stamen and wiggling around. And that's it. It flew away. Where'd it go? Where'd it go?

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WHISKEY POETS' "CHEYENNE SHUFFLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.