How To Rescue 20 Million Angry Bees

What do you do when a truck hauling 20 million bees crashes on the highway? NPR's Rachel Martin talks to Deborah Delaney, bee researcher and professor at the University of Delaware, to find out.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Every year, millions of commercial honey bees hit the road headed to farms around the country to pollinate crops. Occasionally, there are mishaps like the one that took place this past week in Delaware when a tractor-trailer carrying hundreds of beehives tipped over on the highway.

We wondered - how do you go about wrangling almost 20 million angry bees? Deborah Delaney is an entomologist at the University of Delaware, and she was on the scene of that accident. She joins us to explain what she saw. Deborah, thanks so much for being with us.

DEBORAH DELANEY: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: So you're a bee specialist, and when something like this happens - which apparently it does from time to time - your phone ends up ringing. You traveled to the scene, as we mentioned. What was the situation when you got there? Paint us a picture.

DELANEY: Well, when we arrived, it was probably around 9 o'clock. And I believe the accident occurred quite a bit earlier, at least three hours earlier. So it was dark. There were about four other beekeepers there with smoke and clouds and clouds of angry bees, completely disoriented bees clinging onto every possible surface and just a heap of colonies overturned.

MARTIN: So how do you even begin to get the bees back into the hives and back onto a truck? Can you walk me through it?

DELANEY: It's tricky. I wish I had a pipe so I could, you know, whistle a beautiful melody to get them all to go back in, but it's not that easy.

MARTIN: (Laughter) It doesn't work that way.

DELANEY: When they're that disturbed and agitated, if you come near them, they're going to sting you. And they're trying to get into your suit and your veil. So we're just using smoke. Any big pallet that we could find in the wreck, we would pull down and lay on the ground. And then any in-tact, deep boxes - which are the main brood chamber where the queen should be, and also her young and eggs - we would try to recover that and put that on the pallet. They could then load that onto another truck with a forklift, and take it back to a holding yard to assess the damage for later.

MARTIN: What about the finances of this, Deborah? For a beekeeper to lose that many beans, how much money does that mean?

DELANEY: I would be crying, I think. What I've heard is that it was valued at about a quarter of a million dollars. It was about $250,000, and that was including the money that he would have gotten from the pollination contract.

MARTIN: This isn't the first time an accident like this has happened. Is this just part of the deal of transporting bees? You have to factor in a level of risk or are there certain safety precautions that can and should be taken, do you think, to prevent this?

DELANEY: I know that they're getting more efficient with how to load them securely, making sure that the load is balanced and equalized on the truck. And I know that certain people, some migratory beekeepers are even looking into plans of building and making trucks where the bees are actually kept inside of a more climatized container unit. We're going to definitely see advances in this area.

MARTIN: Deborah Delaney is assistant professor of entomology at the University of Delaware, talking to us about catching bees. Thanks so much, Deborah.

DELANEY: Oh, thank you.

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