A Beekeepers' Christmas
written by Keith Roberts, Head Beekeeper at The Valley Hive
February is the Super Bowl for U.S beekeepers, and California is the perpetual stadium. More bees are in this state at the moment than anywhere else on the planet. The almonds provide a very nutritious pollen and they expand in population rather rapidly as they kick their queen into high gear, and it is not unusual for them to run out of space in their two box format. Today’s mission is to ensure that doesn’t happen, so the truck is piled high with empty boxes just in case.
I wake at 4:29 a.m., one minute before my alarm. I turn it off before it has a chance to pierce the silence and I check the weather in Hanford, my destination today. As I hear the rain plinking outside my bedroom window in Canoga Park, I force myself to believe the weather prophets’ forecast for clear and sunny skies today in the almond orchards. For most people, the weather influences attire. With the uncharacteristically wet weather of late, being a beekeeper in the almonds can be tricky. Getting stuck in the mud, among stinging insects without cell service is definitely a concern.
Coffee and lunchbox in hand, I head to The Valley Hive in Chatsworth to pick up the bee truck, affectionately nicknamed “Chelsea”.
It is still early: 5:15. My joints creak, and I am reminded that, although in my thirties, I do not feel like a young man anymore. My previous career of delivering packages has added a bit more mileage on the odometer than normal. As the tendinitis in my right hand hisses its presence, I wonder if I will even make it to the average age of the commercial beekeeper. Sixty years old seems a lifetime away. As I cinch the loads tight, cold rain permeates the green straps, steel ratchets, and my sore knuckles, and I can’t help but think that all of my experience at this young age is a good thing.
The GMC 6500 Flatbed has two stacks of 80 medium boxes. As I step out of my pickup in the rain, I look at the tall stacks and anticipate the jarring terrain and potholes of the 5 freeway before the grapevine. I am no longer content with the load. I loosen the straps, climb onto the truck, and restack the boxes into three rows instead of two to lessen the chance of losing a box on the Grapevine.
I realize I forgot a lid for one of the boxes, and go to climb off the truck by way of the ball hitch, which provides a convenient step off the back of the trailer. As I go to brace myself on the hitch, I find nothing but an empty space. It is gone. I flash back to leaving the truck at a shop the other night due to the water pump succumbing on Friday on the way out to do what I am doing now, and I conclude immediately that it must have been stolen.
My anger rises, and I let it pass. Today is for the bees. The hitch will be a problem to solve tomorrow.
I climb into the cabin, turn the key, and the 454 engine roars to life, seemingly eager to battle the distance, road, and elements.
Snow on The Grapevine
ON THE ROAD
The rain pounds the truck as the grapevine provides snow and beautiful scenery. I stop to take a quick bathroom break in the wet and cold at a rest stop and check the load. Everything is holding tight, and I start the truck and head back on the road, thinking about the work ahead.
The 5 Freeway splits into the 99, and I make the move. I am in farm country now, and the almond orchards I pass appear to be in full bloom.
As I take a sip of the black coffee, still scalding, I nearly burn my hand. The excitement and apprehension of the day take turns rolling over in my gut like an apple coated in barbed wire. My mind is on thoughts of the bees. They should be healthy; or they might be poisoned by pesticide; perhaps stolen. Colony thefts have skyrocketed in recent years.
ARRIVAL IN THE ALMONDS
Three hours of driving finds me in Hanford. The first drop of 20 hives is healthy. Begrudgingly, I take some ridiculous selfies, as requested for our social media accounts. I place supers on the booming hives and let myself take in the beautiful white and gold blossoms on trees that were the definition of barren a mere week and change ago.
Dead Bees in the Almonds
Further along, I discover colonies with a few hundred dead bees on the ground in front of the landing board. My heart aches at the sight. My frustration simmers as the smoker churns on top of a cover. The hive next to the compromised one shows no sign at all of being exposed to the same toxin, and I wonder what was sprayed. Year after year, beekeepers are forced to witness their hives being poisoned by the very same folks who demand these six legged pollinators. Is this ever going to end?
Unaware of the fatalities, the bees seem to be in a fantastic mood. I wear only a veil -- no gloves or suit today. They seem almost happy to see me, and I as I carefully place a medium box with 10 frames above their existing box, I imagine they appreciate the expansion of the Langstroth mansions.
I am alone, so perhaps I am even more attentive to the placement of the tires of my bee truck. “Stay on the crown, Roberts,” I say to myself, referring to the top most part of the dirt road that tapers off along the sides that would spell a muddy ruin to an otherwise perfect day. There is not a rain cloud in sight, and the sky is a deep blue; the weather people got it right today.
I work the bees, I snap some photos (coerced, mind you), and I take in the beauty. It is almost uncomfortable to take it in all alone, and I am not sure if my color-blind eyes can adequately comprehend the magnificence of the blooms. The bees provide amazing company, and I do not mind being by myself, typically. But these blossoms are a once in a year event, and perhaps my Super Bowl metaphor isn’t appropriate. This is Christmas. Yes. This is the beekeeper Christmas. The gift of the almonds that heralds the spring. I understand why the Japanese so appreciate the blooming of the cherry blossoms,
It really is beautiful.
The last box is placed on a hive, and I secure a handful of lids and head back on the road. I have a quarter tank of gas left in the truck and I have a choice; 25 minutes out of the way to the east, or go back the way I came, a straight shot, with fuel 30 minutes in the distance.
I choose the latter and cruise down the 43.
Chelsea The Bee Truck
I make a left on Pond Road, on my way to the 99. The fuel gauge still shows a click above empty, and I am 4 minutes away from fuel.
Suddenly the engine dies, and I use the momentum to safely get myself parked on the shoulder of the road. I am out of gas.
“This is all on you, Roberts,” I mutter. “Real good. Seriously.”
I call AAA and tell them of my idiocy. I am told someone will be out in about 45 minutes with fuel. As I end the call, I notice a dozen bees or so resting on the windshield. The truck had stopped at another almond orchard in full bloom with bee hives next to the road.
Out of concern for the AAA driver coming to my rescue, I get out of my truck and walk near the hives to assess their temperament. They ignore me, and I am satisfied that the driver will not be rewarded with bee stings for helping me.
In 30 minutes a technician is filling my tank with five gallons of dino-juice. As the fuel is heard raining inside the empty steel tank, the broad shouldered tech looks at me with a bit of concern.
“So, um, these bees, they aren’t going to sting me right?” He asked.
“Not unless I want them to,” I chuckle.
He did not find me funny.
“I’m allergic,” he asserted.
“They won’t sting you. They are nice bees. I checked.”
After a handshake and a turn of the key, I was on the road again. I made it to the Chevron station, filled up the tank to the brim, and headed back home.
As the sun moves to the west, I focus on navigating through the chaos of the Los Angeles freeway traffic and find some satisfaction in knowing that I am one of thousands of beekeepers travelling to and from the almonds today to work their bees.
I was wrong earlier. I wasn’t alone.
I had company all along.