An unfortunate truck accident early Friday morning unleashed millions of angry bees on a Washington state interstate.
At 3:30 a.m., the bee-loaded truck merged onto Interstate 5 north of Seattle when it tipped over on its side. The truck's cargo of 458 hives spilled onto the highway, which USA Today estimated to contain 14 million bees. The driver was not harmed in the accident.
Why was a truck hauling millions of bees to begin with? As it turns out, this is a regular occurrence, and one that may shed light on the fragile health of US bee populations.
Many of the bees were crushed in the early-morning accident, but as day broke and the temperature rose, the surviving bees became agitated. Firefighters came to the scene to hose the bees with a foam, killing more of the insects.
Beekeepers from Belleville Honey and Beekeeping Supply, located in Burlington, Wash., attempted to salvage as many insects as possible. The truck was en route to a blueberry farm in Lynden. The truck wreckage could not be removed from the highway until the bees were removed.
Migratory beekeeping contributes greatly to American agriculture. Roughy 1,600 beekeepers bring their colonies – approximately 31 billion bees – to California alone between October and February to pollinate almond fields.
Today, most revenue in beekeeping does not come from honey production. According to Scientific American, many beekeepers make at least half of their annual income from renting their hives for crop pollination. With different regions requiring bees at a different times, they can travel the country, providing assistance for agriculture. Without massive honeybee help, the US would be out a third of its crops, including broccoli, blueberries, avocados, raspberries, cherries, apples, melons, and lettuce.
While they travel across the country for their seasonal pollinating, migratory bees still need to survive the winter. And this is where the population is running into problems. Beginning in the 1990s, the number of bees surviving the winter months began to decline, due to a mysterious phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder. Because CCD can be caused by multiple factors – bee diet, environmental factors and viruses – it has been difficult for beekeepers to address bee loss every year. In 2013, beekeepers lost an average of 45 percent of their colonies.
Dr. Greg Hunt, a honeybee expert at Purdue University, says that data has not been released for 2015, but bee losses look to remain steady.
“We’ve been seeing about 30 percent loss in an average winter,” Dr. Hunt told Time. “The winter before last was particularly bad and got a lot of attention, but things have been bad for a while.”
Little research has been done on the effects of transportation on bees and its relation to CCD. One study published in the entomology journal Psyche suggests that bees who undergo excessive transportation may have developmental problems that affect their ability to raise the next generation of worker bees.
Seth Thompson of Belleville Farms said the Washington crash was a crushing blow. The company owns about 8,000 hives in total, and the truck carried over 400. Thompson said thankfully they were able to save a number of them.
“We saved 128 hives before the sun came up and it got too nice,” he told The Seattle Times. “This is 400 [of our hives]. It’s a bad deal—a couple hundred thousand dollars for sure.”
This article contains reporting from the Associated Press.