Canadian beekeeper Mike Barber was helping his son get back to sleep Wednesday morning when he checked his phone and noticed he had ten missed calls from a local police officer, reports Michael Levenson for the New York Times.
It was a rare beekeeping emergency: Around five million bees had been set loose on a road in Ontario, Canada, after a truck accidentally dumped several hives during transport.
Barber arrived to the accident to find “a pretty crazy cloud of bees” that were “very angry, confused and homeless,” he tells BBC News’ Nadine Yousif. Police put out a call on social media around that time, asking pedestrians to avoid the area and drivers to roll up their windows while passing through.
Barber, who runs a business called Tri-City Bee Rescue, was one of about a dozen local beekeepers that rushed to provide assistance.
“They were all really helpful and really quick to get to the scene,” Constable Ryan Anderson of the Halton Regional Police Service tells the Times. “It’s really nice, because it’s obviously not something the police deal with often… We’ve had horses running down the street and the occasional bear, but nothing like this amount of bees. So, we had to lean pretty heavily on the experts on this one.”
Guelph Ln north of Dundas - Officers dealing with load of 5 million bees fallen off truck onto roadway. Passing vehicles/residents advised to close windows & pedestrians avoid area until clear. ^jwf pic.twitter.com/evuVoyL1Fc— HRPS Burlington (@HRPSBurl) August 30, 2023
For onlookers unfamiliar with the insects, five million buzzing honeybees would likely create an alarming sight. But the number “sounds bigger than it is for the most part, because a colony of bees could be 80,000 bees,” beekeeper Luc Peters tells Desmond Brown of CBC News. Barber estimates about 20 of the 40 hives being transported toppled off the trailer as the truck swerved to avoid a deer in the road, per CNN’s Zenebou Sylla.
Some beekeepers placed the fallen hives together as a visual cue for the bees to return to them, while others collected queen bees that were on the ground and bees crawling on cars, per the Times. A few hours later, officials shared on X, formerly Twitter, that the majority of the bees were collected and the crates would be hauled away. Some crates were left behind for the remaining bees to return to, however, per the police department.
The bees were likely en route to their winter home after being used to pollinate crops locally, Barber tells CNN.
Commercial beekeepers transport their hives seasonally to farms that rely on these imported pollinators for a variety of crops, including almonds, which make up the bulk of the United States’ honeybee pollination market. In 2017, U.S. farmers spent $320 million on pollination, with California almond producers accounting for 80 percent of that amount. The state produces about 82 percent of the world’s almonds, so it sees by far the largest influx of seasonal honeybees in the winter.
But almonds aren’t the only crops that use honeybees for pollination—farms growing apples, melons, cranberries, pumpkins, squash and broccoli are among those that rely on commercial beekeeping. Worldwide, the amount of crops dependent on animal pollination has skyrocketed 300 percent in the past 50 years.
A few thousand bees likely died in the Canadian accident, though it will be a while before the total losses are confirmed, per CBC News.
“It was sad to just be on the scene and see the carnage and just the amount of dead bees on the road,” Barber tells CNN. “But it was really great to see all of the beekeepers coming for the call, and just trying to help.”