Sting bomb: When millions of bees are unleashed

Posted: May 23, 2014

NEWARK, Del. - A lone honeybee, its wings wet and its mind likely muddled, crawled across a porch on Old Cooches Bridge Road yesterday, a seemingly safe haven amid the bee-pocalypse all around.

Just 100 yards away, across the busy lanes of Interstate 95 near the University of Delaware, the scene along a northbound on-ramp resembled a tiny battlefield after a major conflict. Bees clung to a gnarled guardrail, barely moving, while others tried to fly between the raindrops, in and out of the many smashed, wooden hives spilled all over the small strip of grass.

A traffic sign warned passing motorists to keep their windows up to avoid "bee swarms."

Eventually, the National Guard and local firefighters showed up, dousing everything with a soapy-looking liquid and taking the debris away as millions of bees dispersed or floated away in the foam.

Mike Wham, an amateur beekeeper from Worton, Md., stood in the drizzle, shaking his head.

"It's just a damn shame," said Wham, 56. "So many bees. I was hoping I could catch a couple."

This is what takes place after a truckload of honeybees tips over, as happened at 6:10 p.m. Tuesday - 460 crated hives containing up to 20 million of the insects, all spilled out into the open and ready to sting. Most were scooped up by a South Jersey beekeeper, but their fate still hinges on the survival of the queens inside the hives.

The bees belonged to Eisele Pollination and Honey, a company based in Michigan and Florida, and were traveling north from their winter home near Miami, all the way up the East Coast to Allen's Blueberry Freezer in Ellsworth, Maine, where they would be used to pollinate the blueberry bushes for a few weeks.

The owner did not return a request for comment.

The Delaware accident offered a rare glimpse into an industry in which billions of domesticated honeybees buzz up and down American highways every year, experts say, shipped off to Maine and Massachusetts to pollinate blueberries or cranberries or all the way out to California to pollinate almond groves.

They're driven during the day, and the wind prevents them from flying out. The drivers sleep at night, when the bees huddle close inside the hives to stay warm.

"It's a huge part of American farming," said Keith Seifert, 25, of the Sweet Bee Co. near Orlando, Fla. "It's a big loss for all of us when something like this happens."

North America's population of wild honeybees is almost nonexistent, decimated by mites and by colony-collapse disorder, the sudden death of a colony's worker bees, the experts said. And without these convoys of domesticated bees trucking around, the grocery store would be a different place.

"About one-third of the world's crops wouldn't exist without honeybees," said Bill Leitzinger, vice president of the Delaware Beekeepers Association. "They are essential, and without them there's no blueberries, no apples, no almonds."

The Bee Team

That's why Harvey's Honey in Monroeville, Salem County, N.J., sprang into action Tuesday after the 2007 Freightliner tractor-trailer driven by Adolfo Guerro, 55, of Miami, overturned as it tried to negotiate the I-95 on-ramp from Delaware Route 896 northbound.

"Beekeepers help out beekeepers," said Rob Harvey, 35. "We know how important they are."

Agitated and confused by all the mayhem, the bees swarmed around the crash scene to defend the individual queens inside each hive, stinging Guerro and two other passengers, both Florida men, up to 100 times. Guerro later was issued a citation for having an unsafe load, authorities said.

The swarming bees prompted Delaware State Police to activate a "Honey Bee Swarm Removal Plan," which includes bringing in beekeepers like those from Harvey's Honey, in business since 1979.

Harvey said the swarms were still thick, the bees still angry, after he and a half-dozen co-workers made the 30-mile trek west to Newark.

"It was a pretty good mess down there, for sure," Harvey said. "They were still pissed off."

Harvey said his crew suffered dozens of stings but managed to salvage about 275 hives - millions of bees - and hauled them back to the family operation on Route 40 that's usually home to 4,000 hives. Each hive lives and dies by its queen, and depending on the condition of each queen inside and how high the bees' general stress levels rose, Harvey said, it was still touch-and-go.

"They're still angry right now," Harvey's mother, Dottie Harvey, 58, said yesterday at the family farm in Monroeville. "They're out there flying all over the place."

Meanwhile, that disoriented bee on Old Cooches Bridge Road had found a friend in Lisa Hoberg.

"I'm a real tree hugger," Hoberg said. "I was hoping I would see one after I heard [about the accident]. All you ever see are wasps and carpenter bees."

On Twitter: @JasonNark

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