Transporting bees to almond orchards is an intense time of year for commercial beekeepers. Navigating the precise timing needed to get hives up over mountain passes or through deserts and into orchards can be tricky. There is constant pressure to keep the trucks moving; with the risk losing thousands of forager bees or whole colonies if trucks have to stop and the bees take flight.
As trucks approach a California border station, they have to pull over to have their loads inspected for invasive species the state of California wants to keep out. For trailers full of bees, the main concern is pallets that have been sitting on the ground and potentially contain debris with invasive plants or insects. Trucks can be parked at border stations waiting for inspection for long periods of time, which frustrates truckers as their time is money. Additionally, if trucks are waiting on a warm sunny day, the bees on the trailer are likely to start flying. This can result in a massive reduction in adult bee populations, negatively impacting both beekeepers and almond growers. The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) began a new program in 2018 designed to make the trip a little smoother. The pre-inspection program aims to get bees approved to pass through CA border stations before they ever start their journey. Originally started in collaboration with the North Dakota Department of Agriculture and Honey Bee State Inspection Program, the idea was for beekeepers who ship colonies directly from North Dakota to almonds to get their hives pre-approved so that their truckers would not have to wait at border stations. The program has since expanded to Idaho and will likely expand to Montana soon as well. We spoke to North Dakota inspection officials and beekeepers who participate in the program to get information about how the process works.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM YOUR INSPECTION
The exact details of how inspection works may depend on your state of origin. We spoke to Samantha Brunner, the North Dakota State Inspector, and Adam Pachl, the Plant Protection Specialist who performs North Dakota inspections. The requirements state that 20% of the pre-approved colonies have to be visually inspected. This means that in an apiary of 100 hives, 20 would have to be look at for the entire yard to be pre-approved. Adam let us know that typically he ends up looking at closer to 50%, as it is easy to look over most of the colonies in apiary once he’s there.
During the inspection, they are looking mainly for dirt trapped underneath pallets that may harbor invasive plant material. While insects such as fire ants are a concern for hives coming from southern states, hives from northern states pose more of a risk from invasive plants such as Canada thistle. The way to pass inspection is to have clean pallets. Methods for cleaning pallets include using winter windshield brushes, outdoor brooms, and leaf blowers. Reaching into the back and corners of pallets is key. If for some reason you do not pass inspection on your first try, you can usually clean your pallets and reschedule for another check.
After hives pass inspection, they are issued a paper certificate that the trucker will present at the border station. The trucker still has to pull over and exit the truck to present the certificate, but this process can take 10-15 minutes as opposed to an hour or more that it takes to undergo inspection at the border. The CDFA keeps track of how many colonies each beekeeper was pre-approved for, and how many have entered the state.
INDOOR STORAGE IS WELL-SUITED FOR PRE-INSPECTION
As indoor storage gains popularity among US beekeepers, the timing of when mass amounts of hives are entering California is shifting. While many beekeepers winter outdoors in southern California, passing through borders earlier in the season, beekeepers who use indoor storage don’t send colonies to California until January. The vast majority of beekeepers using indoor storage do so in Idaho, and ~85% of trucks going from indoor storage to California pass through the border in Truckee, CA. This presents the potential to overwhelm the Truckee border station, as many trucks leaving indoor storage facilities can hit the border at the same time in January. The pre-inspection program helps alleviate this issue, as each truck passes through the border in much less time because they are not stopped waiting for inspection.
The nature of indoor storage makes it very well-suited to pre-inspection. Beekeepers using indoor storage typically need to ensure their pallets are strong and clean when they stack them inside storage facilities. Colonies stored indoors also have less exposure to dirt, soil, and plant materials that inspection officials are checking for. Indoor storage also allows a flexible timeline for inspection, as colonies can be inspected at any time they are stored. Beekeepers using indoor storage typically do not have to change their schedule or methods to pass inspection.
The other great advantage of indoor storage is that more colonies are in one location. This cuts down on driving time between apiaries. Often storage facilities are shared my more than one beekeeper, making it possible for a single inspector to pre-approve multiple operations in one day. One beekeeper told us that their inspector in Idaho did three buildings in an afternoon, a total of ~15,000 colonies. The inspectors are used to working in storage facilities and do not require that pallets be unstacked or that white lights come on. They will walk up and down rows, shining flashlights under pallets. We heard that inspectors will get the occasional sting during this process, but that’s just a part of the job.
PRE-INSPECTION BENEFITS EVERYONE
One of the best things about the pre-inspection program is that it seems to benefit all parties involved. One of the biggest drivers behind program adoption is truckers. They love being able to breeze through a border station without having to wait for inspection. Beekeepers expressed that pre-inspection is worth it to them even if it saves only 1-2 trucks from getting stopped at the border. Currently the service is free, and beekeepers told us it was important it stay free in order to be economically beneficial to them.
Finally, the benefit to the state of California is huge. Pre-inspection keeps trucks from getting backed up at the border, which is frustrating for everyone. California’s almond growers also benefit from more accurate expectations of when truckloads of bees will arrive because they don’t have issues at the border. In addition, hives that don’t get stopped and lose foragers are likely higher quality and have bigger pollinating workforces. The smoother the process is at the border, the better for everyone involved.
FUTURE OF THE PROGRAM
The program is still relatively new but is gaining popularity fast. The first year of the program included North Dakota only, and 13% of colonies shipped direct from North Dakota to California were inspected. The following year that was up to 23.5%, 161 out of 685 shipments. The percentage was even higher in Idaho where in the first year of the program 33% of shipments were inspected at origin. The higher pre-inspection rates in Idaho can likely be explained by more Idaho beekeepers using indoor storage, allowing for easier inspection of more hives and operations.
In both Idaho and North Dakota, the first year of the program consisted of CDFA sending officials out from California to perform inspections. This was less preferred by beekeepers, as officials were only available for inspections for a short window of time. Both states have since adopted local officials who can perform inspections on behalf of CDFA.
So far, the greatest complaint about the program from all parties involved is that the process would be much smoother if pre-inspection certificates could be provided to border stations electronically. As it stands, truckers have to present physical copies of paperwork, which still takes time out of their schedule. The ultimate goal for the program is to move to a digital system where border stations would have certificates in a database so that trucks could pass through border stations without even exiting their trucks. With input from CDFA, truckers, and beekeepers, we expect the program to continue to grow and become more efficient to provide maximum benefits to all parties.