ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
That semi truck next to you on the highway may be carrying something unexpected - honeybees. Billions of them go on road trips this time of year rented by farmers who need the bees to pollinate their crops. Robert Smith of NPR's PLANET MONEY team followed one shipment of hives headed for the almond fields of California.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEES BUZZING)
ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: If you are a honey bee, there is no more idyllic place than the bayous of Louisiana.
WES CARD: You got the cypress trees. You've got your flowering plants and legumes, your tallow trees.
SMITH: But in spring, there you are, minding your own business...
W. CARD: Collecting nectar, making honey.
SMITH: And all of a sudden, this guy, Wes Card, sends in the forklifts.
(SOUNDBITE OF FORKLIFT ENGINE)
W. CARD: And we start picking them up and moving them around and setting them on new pallets and stack them onto the truck, and the journey begins.
SMITH: First to a bee staging area outside of Bunkie, La., then eventually out to California to pollinate crops.
What would happen if you didn't ship bees to California?
W. CARD: If anybody didn't ship bees, then no blueberries, no almonds, no strawberries, no squash, no citrus.
SMITH: So the mission these bees are on is to prevent a fruit and nut apocalypse.
W. CARD: Correct.
SMITH: The big tractor trailer arrives at dusk, and the numbers here get insane quickly. They will load 15 million bees onto this truck alone, and beekeepers all around the country are doing the same thing. Just for the almond crop in California, 30 billion bees travel from out-of-state. Wes' brother Glen says it is a huge part of the beekeepers' income.
GLEN CARD: 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 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: You'd think there would be an easier way to make an almond but no. Over the last decade, almonds got insanely popular, and farmers in California kept planting more almond trees, more trees than California bees could possibly pollinate. So they had to start shipping in from out-of-state, which is challenging. After Wes' crew loads the semi, they staple a giant net over the beehives so that they don't escape. And the driver, Kermit Jones - he has to keep the truck moving all day long to keep the bees inside the hives.
KERMIT JONES: You know, you start early in the morning, make sure you got your fuel and everything. And then, you know, you drive until they kind of calm down a little bit.
SMITH: What if you need to go to the bathroom?
JONES: Oh, you keep a couple cups or something like that, you know?
SMITH: When it is dark, 15 million bees begin their adventure.
W. CARD: Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.
SMITH: As the bees are trucking along the highway, bee brokers in California are matching up the right hives with the right orchards, and everyone is hoping that the bees arrive healthy. There is still a huge problem with mysterious bee deaths. Colony collapse, it's called. In fact, Wes Card has to prepare two hives in Louisiana for every one that he ships just in case some of the hives die out.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINS RATTLING)
SMITH: After three days of driving, the truck arrives at an almond orchard and Firebaugh, Calif. West warns me that I might want to put on a bee suit for the unloading.
W. CARD: We're going to want to walk a little bit further back here...
W. CARD: ...As we get ready to pull the screens.
SMITH: For three days, these bees have not been able to fly, so when the nets come off, they create this huge black cloud. It swirls in a funnel above the truck, going higher and higher.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEES BUZZING)
SMITH: 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.
SMITH: The bees will live here until mid-March or so, pollinating the almond flowers and making possible all of that almond milk and low-carb almond snack packs. The scale of this bee moving may seem insane, and Wes says, yeah, it is a little crazy. But he says there is a demand. You can't move the trees, so the bees just need to hit the road. Robert Smith, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF CARIBOU SONG, "BEES")
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