Many of us experienced pandemic-related shipping issues over the last year-especially around the holidays. The United States Postal Service (USPS) in particular is still recovering from the holiday crunch. USPS is required to ship lives bees, and helping businesses connect with their customers is part of their mission:
“-To serve the American people and, through the universal service obligation, bind our nation together by maintaining and operating our unique, vital and resilient infrastructure.
-To provide trusted, safe and secure communications and services between our Government and the American people, businesses and their customers, and the American people with each other.
-To serve all areas of our nation, making full use of evolving technologies.”
With package bee season right around the corner, and spring queen orders kicking into high gear, how is a strained USPS impacting queen and package producers?
Dr. Jeff Pettis, who has worked on improving bee shipping protocols said “Most shippers I know have used UPS more than USPS, but if they use the post office it’s always priority mail.” And a representative from Kona Queens indicated they are having success with FEDEX lately.
Todd Prince, a queen producer based in Zebulon, North Carolina, says he typically sells about 600 queens a year, often one or two at a time. He does use priority mail and says the service over the last year has gotten very noticeably worse. “Typically, it’s 2–3-day service for delivery. I was seeing a lot of cases where it took 5,6,7,8,9 or even 10 days for delivery.” And he added, “of course, 10 days for a queen in a warmer season is detrimental to her. I can’t afford to replace 10% of the queens because they didn’t get to where they were supposed to go in time.”
Prince acknowledged that some issues have been made worse by the pandemic, however, events like a failure to scan packages, which leaves customers in the dark about when the queen will arrive, have become more frequent and are impacting his business.
“I used to see 1 out of maybe 50 shipments, and last year it was maybe 8-10% of packages that were not arriving on time.”-Todd Prince, NC Queen Bee, Zebulon, NC.
Many queen producers will have the shipping information clearly stated on their website. A lot of US queens have to travel all the way from California or Hawaii. The physical distance alone is a major exercise in logistics, and reliable shipping methods are crucial to making the industry work.
From the customer’s side, any beekeeper will tell you that the queen makes the colony. Indeed, the queen often takes the blame when the colony fails, and re-queening regularly is a major beekeeping cost and an investment in long-term colony health and success.
Responses to The Bee Informed Partnership’s management survey from 2015-2020 show that 45.1% of all beekeepers (commercial, sideline, and backyard) attribute at least some losses to queen failure. This number drops to 21.9% when you just look at responses from commercial beekeepers, who generally re-queen entire apiaries on a regular schedule. www.beeinformed.org
When a queen fails, it is not always obvious why. Dr. Alison McAfee, a researcher working on queen bee health in the U.S. and Canada, said, “Our research shows that queens should be kept at 15-38 C (59 - 100.4 F). If they experience temperatures outside that range for 2 hours or more, that can kill the sperm in their spermatheca and reduce their fertility. Queens are at particular risk of temperature extremes during shipping, where there are too few workers to adequately thermoregulate.”
The longer a queen is in transit, the more opportunity for temperature fluctuations to occur, possibly resulting in a damaged queen upon delivery.
Timing and temperature are also crucial for shipping packages of bees. Even if the producer is driving the bees to a drop-off location themselves, proper ventilation prevents the bees from overheating, which would hurt the queen (and the workers) in the package. In both queen and package bee shipments, the bees are supplied with enough food for the journey - not the journey plus ten days.
“A temperature stressed queen looks the same as any other queen, so you won't be able to tell if she's been stressed unless there were temperature loggers in the package. We are working on a lab test to detect evidence of temperature stress but that is in the early stages of development.”-Dr. Alison McAfee, NC State University and the University of British Columbia
Beekeepers care a lot about the quality of their products. Queen producers often will offer a refund or replacement if the queen delivery arrived obviously dead or dying. Some package carriers do offer insurance. The insurance may not cover the full value of the package, and beekeepers may not be able to make a claim unless the packaging is obviously damaged (even if the bees inside are dead). Because the possible negative impacts of shipping aren’t always visible, having reliable means of shipment is key. While some queen and package producers have multiple options for reaching their customers, other producers are worried about how ongoing USPS issues will impact their business this spring.
Given the pandemic, and the current discussions about overhauling USPS, we probably can’t ever expect it to return to “normal.” The good news is that those discussions have included making USPS a more modern package carrier. Maybe the changes will increase confidence in USPS among queen and package producers.