Bees & Beekeeping: Present & Past

The Bee Truck: Faithful Workhorse in the Apiary

- February 1, 2021 - Wyatt Mangum - (excerpt)

Bee Truck

When a beekeeper’s hive numbers increase, outgrowing the backyard, she finds that first out apiary. Growing more, another apiary is needed, later on a few more. Logistics become more of a problem: moving hives and supers among the apiaries, and having special equipment in an apiary for some surprise difficulty. At the heart of these logistics is a vehicle. For me that has been a pickup truck. In my over 50 years of studying bees and managing colonies, I have never owned a car or a motorcycle –– only four bee trucks. Each bee truck was a progressive step to a more versatile platform for providing solutions to most any problem found in my out apiaries.

My first bee operation began in a suburban backyard in Richmond, Virginia. After breaking the 20-hive barrier, my close-by neighbors were relieved when I started searching elsewhere for additional apiary sites. My apiaries went west, following the James River for 40 miles. In high school and just after, my first bee operation reached 125 hives, in standard 10-frame hives, producing honey by the ton. In the beekeeping books of those days (mid 1970s), the bee truck was not a subject rich in detail. Beginning back then, I had to learn mostly on my own about how the bee truck “fits” to the rest of the beekeeping operation. I had to learn how to equip the bee truck to meet most any difficulty far from home.

To cover the 40 miles checking apiaries, I had saved up $725 and bought a green 1967 Chevrolet pickup truck, a little over ten years old, but that was quite old for a truck at the time (see Figure 1). I built side-racks allowing for double brood chamber hives stacked two high in the truck. The apiary in Figure 1 was next to the James River, right low on its flood plain. I was advised to register the apiary site location with the harbor master when establishing the apiary. One afternoon in the cold dead of winter, I got the call while at work. The huge field in Figure 1 would be deep under water by the next morning. A night flood was coming.

Racing the setting sun, I rushed to the apiary. My double-deep hives were well into winter. Working alone, I hoisted up their heavy midwinter honey weight, aiming at the tailgate. The hives, a bulky 10 frames wide and two brood chambers deep, almost outmatched my struggling bearhug grip. I would not advise such strenuous hive loading, unless powered by fear and fortified by adrenaline. I even loaded most all the cinder blocks, used for hive stands. When I finally finished the hive loading, I realized the real horror already had me in its grip.

The source of the flooding came from upriver; as I recall we did not have any heavy rain in my local area. Cryptically though, the field before inundation became saturated before returning, yet again, to a river bottom. Even with the extra weight of the apiary load for traction, my bee truck was stuck right where it stood!

I was going to lose not only the hives — but also my first bee truck!

The frightening thought knifed through me as my hands gripped the steering wheel in the twilight. Nobody was nearby. Who could help me? Who could tow me anyway? Who would risk coming off the long paved driveway (seen in the distance in Figure 1) across a saturated field to tow a truckload of beehives for a frightened teenager?

Without the beehive load, freeing this old bee truck from mud would be fairly easy. Normally, I would put the truck in first gear, the slowest running gear, and manually choke the engine. That was done by pulling out a dashboard knob a couple of inches. The knob connected directly to the carburetor, where gas vapor goes in the engine to produce its power. At full choke, the engine received a very rich mixture of gas and air, which was needed to start a cold engine. I would have the engine already hot when the truck became stuck. I would need the extra power. I would slowly release the clutch. The big V-8 engine would begin to slowly turn the back wheels in the mud. Now here’s the part I do not recommend, but one forced from necessity. I dare say it’s not found in any beekeeping book (for good reason).

I would get out of the truck, wisely leaving the driver door open. From the back bumper, I would push, letting the truck rock back-and-forth until it broke free and began wandering off aimlessly across the field. Now, who’s driving the bee truck? Not me. I just pushed it out. Hitting a tree was no concern in this huge field. If another mud hole was out there, my old bee truck would surely find it. If the bee truck gained too much of a lead, I would never catch it. So I would sprint after it, sort of jump into the cab, take control of the truck, and drive on to the next apiary.

This time, though, I could not drive on, not with a heavy load of hives. As I sat behind the steering wheel staring off to the paved driveway in near darkness, I heard — the low throb of a farm tractor, far off on that driveway. I bolted across the field. A farmer was taking the tractor to his barn up on stilts. With his heavy chain, the farmer’s tractor easily pulled the bee truck and hives across the waterlogged field to dry, hard pavement. I thanked him profusely, drove off never to go back, my hands shaking so much I could barely hold the wheel. Figures 2 and 3 show my arrival the following morning at another apiary after the emergency evacuation of all the hives from Figure 1. After nearly losing my bee truck and hives, I resolved to have no more apiaries on low floodable ground.

To survive the financial difficulties of undergraduate life, I sold my 125 frame hives. Electrical problems doomed the bee truck to spare parts. In graduate school, I wanted my bees back. I found fulltime employment working in the honey bee research and extension program at North Carolina State University. I had lived through the build-up, boom times, and sell-off of a 10-frame hive operation for honey production. As a highly-experienced veteran beekeeper in the rare position of starting over, completely unconstrained by things like frame sizes, etc., I was free to search for something novel.

In the mid 1980s, tracheal mites had just arrived in the United States (1984), and the varroa disaster was nearing (1987). The prominence of the internet and mobile phones was still a long way off. I was one of the rare beekeepers who     ….