Bee specialist called in to assist cleanup after wreck

Staff Reporter

(July 8, 2014) Deborah Delaney is used to bees.
She’s an assistant professor in the University of Delaware’s entomology department. Bees are her specialty. That was a particularly fortunate fact on May 20 when Delaney was called to the site of a nighttime tractor-trailer wreck on I-95 outside Newark, Del., that had spilled millions of commercially raised bees onto the highway.
The insects were on their way to pollinate a blueberry farm in Maine.
But when Delaney arrived, they were buzzing around the crash site, causing problems on the busiest highway on the East Coast.
The Delmarva Farmer spoke last week with Delaney about the incident, her work with bees and the issues facing both them and growers who use them today.
Q: Tell us what it felt like to encounter a scene of a million swarming bees on an interstate. I imagine that’s got to be rare even for a person who works with them.
A: Literally, it was just this mountain of overturned, smashed bee boxes with bees clinging to every possible surface. There were just dead bees on the ground, angry bees flying in the air. There were a few beekeepers there with smokers just trying to smoke and salvage any boxes onto palates that could then be loaded onto a semi-truck and be moved off I-95. As soon as we got there, we didn’t think much of anything. We just got to work, trying to put loose frames back in boxes and salvage as much as we could.
Q: I’m assuming a lot of bees were lost in the process.
A: I would assume so. I think there was over 450 colonies loaded onto the truck, and there are probably upwards of 50,000 to 100,000 bees in each colony. And, literally, they were all out and disoriented. Either up in the air or clinging onto boxes.
Q: How important are bees like those important to agriculture and the Delmarva area?
A: The way that we have our agricultural system set up, generally, is that our crops are laid out in the field, mostly all just one particular kind of crop. Maybe different varieties. When there is bloom and that crop does require pollen movement – crop pollination – then honeybees are the managed pollinator choice that are brought in. So, it’s really common for growers to enter into a pollination contract with a beekeeper. Without that pollination, we wouldn’t have a lot of the different fruits and vegetables, a lot of the different seeds for seed crops, so it’s a vital, vital part of agriculture.
Q: What crops in this region require that pollination?
A: Watermelon. Pickles and cucumbers is another big one. Strawberries. I know in Pennsylvania, there are also apples where bees are brought in.
Q: Within the last few years, I’ve read some alarming things about bees: population decline, etc. Can you explain some of that and what it means for growers?
A: It’s different than when I used to keep bees when I first got started. It’s a lot harder. There’s more pests and pathogens. We have different types of chemistries in the agriculture arena that are in question about their effects on pollinators. And, also, we have a big change in land use. Our actual habitat is more fragmented. There’s not as much nutritious forage available for pollinators. And, so, all of these things together definitely stress and have led to declines in pollinator populations. It’s very hard to get a full, valid estimation of pollinator population decline. In this area, weather can also be hard on the bees. We have a long winter and a very variable spring. Sometimes your bees will look great, and your weather will warm up, and the bees will start flying, and then we’ll have a severe cold spell, and the bees will freeze. Overall, I think we’ll be just fine. Things will work themselves out.
Q: As a researcher, is there anything you run into about bees that growers should understand that they often do not?
A: Some growers are very knowledgeable about honeybees and some aren’t. If they want a better yield and better crop output, then it’s important to understand how bees work a crop and how different chemistries that are put on a field — maybe that they’re not actually even applying to the field — that can affect pollinator population. And how even weeds or weedy fields can also affect crop yields. The honeybees will go to whatever has the sweetest sugar content, the sweetest reward. If there’s non-target bloom with a high reward around that crop then they’re going to go to that non-target bloom. Overall, the growers I’ve worked with have been awesome, and they definitely understand and try to encourage the habitat for the pollinators when they put them in the fields because they know that they’re providing a service.