It wasn’t the accident so much as the cargo that was the problem before dawn Friday, when a truck carrying millions of honeybees crashed where Interstate 5 and Highway 405 connect in Lynnwood. The bees, some 14 million of them, were everywhere.
Usually scenes like this don’t create much of a buzz: Early Friday morning, a Peterbilt tractor-trailer merged onto Interstate 5, tipping over, but leaving the 36-year-old driver unhurt.
Washington Department of Transportation records show there were 19 mostly minor crashes on the same stretch of highway in Lynnwood last year.
But most wrecks don’t leave some 14 million honeybees piled up in the highway.
Gawkers on both sides of the highway held up traffic. Five-eyed insects buzzed overhead as TV news reporters swatted at them with microphones in hand. “Everybody’s been stung,” said Sgt. Ben Lewis of the Washington State Patrol at the scene.
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When the sun rose, firefighters had little choice but to douse the insects and bee boxes with water and foam — killing the honeybees, or at least slowing them down.
“They’re little flying solar panels. As soon as light hits them, they want to be active,” explained Mark Emrich, president of the Washington State Beekeepers Association.
By 12:47 p.m. a tow truck, loader and dump truck had cleared the scene, but national media couldn’t ignore the swarm of tweets and stories and video from just north of Seattle.
To the dismay of Eric Thompson, 43, owner of Belleville Farms of Burlington, Skagit County, the multimillion-dollar beekeeping company that owns the hives and truck, all the attention was suddenly on the under-the-radar honeybee. Mostly, the insects are quietly responsible for pollinating crops that make up a sizable chunk of the nation’s food supply.
“In my 20 years of commercial beekeeping, it’s been my worst fear — losing a load on a national highway,” said Thompson. “Is it devastating to my business? No. Is it devastating to my ego? Yes. Being a spectacle to every media outlet and being splattered on the side of the highway. It sucks.”
Thompson sent beekeepers who recovered 128 hives before the sun came up, but he said the damage would be hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment and future profit. Everything was insured, he said.
“I’m disappointed we caused such chaos and confusion,” said Thompson.
Can someone really carry 14 million winged insects across the country and not expect a spectacle, you might ask?
The practice is fairly routine. Commercial beekeepers transport millions of bees every day in trucks during the spring and summer — usually under cover of night, when the insects are less active.
With plentiful cherries, apples and berries, Washington state does a big business in beekeeping. According to a report for the state Legislature, about 500,000 colonies of honeybees were needed to pollinate Washington crops in 2012. Walter Sheppard, a professor of entomology (the study of insects) at Washington State University, said 400 to 500 colonies, one colony per hive, can fit on a single truck.
“There’re probably thousands of trucks of bees moving through the state. … It’s a pretty normal thing to see trucks loaded down with bees on the highway,” said Sheppard.
After Friday’s wreck, most of the bees were killed or hauled to a dump nearby. After being shaken up and separated in the wreck, the bee colonies weren’t likely to survive.
“You have to have the entire unit,” said Emrich, to salvage the colony.
Still, Thompson said, the loss of millions of bees represents just 5 percent of his overall stock of more than 8,000 colonies. He took more than 16 trailer loads of bees to California for almond season.
About 70 percent of the nation’s honeybees go to California to pollinate almonds, said Emrich. Afterward, many work their way north to Washington.
Coming off a tour stop in Sunnyside, Yakima County, Thompson’s bees were bound for blueberry fields in Lynden, Whatcom County.
Isn’t this a public-health concern? Millions, or even trillions, of bees zigzagging around the country?
No, says Sheppard. Honeybees are fairly docile creatures: Unless you’re waving your arms (ahem, television newscasters) or encroaching on their hives, you’re probably going to be fine.
“I couldn’t imagine it [the bee-truck wreck] being a public-health menace, but it’s a big nuisance,” said Sheppard.
Another nuisance: People.
Bees weren’t blocking traffic heading to Seattle, noted State Patrol Sgt. Keith Leary.
“The biggest issue we have on those scenes … is people taking video or cellphone pictures,” said Leary. “Glance at it and move down the road instead of getting your paparazzi shot.”