There is a bee twiddling its legs on the moonlit dashboard of Bill Crawford’s pickup. I tell him we’ve got a straggler before it crawls under a stack of stained papers. There are roughly 4 million more in the back. He is not even slightly concerned.
“There’s probably bees all over. Inside the truck, outside the truck,” he says, eyes scanning the dim country road ahead. “You’re just as liable to get stung in here as you are outside.”
Crawford is a bee man. More than once, he refers to what we’re doing—driving a load of 80 honeybee colonies from western Massachusetts to a wild blueberry farm in central New Hampshire—as “haulin’ bees.” He is active behind the wheel, but he is not gung-ho. When the road bends, he slows down. On the highway he drives the speed limit.
“One thing that’s different haulin’ bees,” he cautions, “you got a higher center of gravity, so you don’t really want to take too tight of turns.”
The truck is a white Ford F-150 with the printed image of a smiling, anthropomorphic bee on the side and more than 171,000 miles on the odometer. The floors are coated in dried mud. Crawford drinks a Cherry Coke and owns both a flip phone and iPad.
He transports his bees at night so that none of them flutter away. They fly only in the daylight, but Crawford still covers the entire load with one big plastic tarp, fastening it with wooden planks and cargo straps. They are stored for most of the year in one of his beeyards near Springfield. When Crawford readies the bees for transport, it looks like some brand of outlandish NASA training: He and his staff, clad in full, graying bee suits, stack hives that resemble office cabinets from a forklift amid a cloud of soothing smoke and darting yellow fuzz.
He considers the North American black bear to be his sworn enemy. Each of his bee hubs is surrounded by electric fences. In total, Crawford owns around 3,200 colonies, equivalent to upward of 150 million bees. He is one of thousands of commercial migratory beekeepers in the United States. They are the phantom backbone of our agricultural system: The bees pollinate the crops; the beekeepers shuttle them from field to field, coast to coast.