Millions of Alaska-bound honeybees die at Atlanta airport

Bees in a shipping container
The bees were bound for Anchorage, where they were to be shipped to beekeepers across the state. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Hundreds of pounds of honeybees were set to ship from the Lower 48 to beekeepers across Alaska last weekend.

But most of the bees died in transit when the crates carrying them were left for hours on a hot tarmac in Atlanta.

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Soldotna beekeeper Sarah McElrea said the loss is devastating. She runs Sarah’s Alaska Honey and also teaches classes and coordinates shipments of bees to beekeepers around Alaska.

On Sunday, she was waiting at the Anchorage airport for a shipment of 800 pounds of bees from a distributor in Sacramento, Calif. It was the first of two shipments that she had ordered on behalf of more than 300 Alaskan beekeepers.

“We had a load that was going to Fairbanks, and then we had somebody else that was going to distribute from Wasilla to Talkeetna,” she said. “And then we were going to do Anchorage and the Valley. And then our second one would’ve come in the following day and we would’ve taken that one back down to the peninsula to fulfill the rest of our orders.”

But the plan hit a snag when the bees were pushed from the original Delta flight. Instead, the airline rerouted them to Atlanta, where they were supposed to catch a direct flight to Anchorage.

When they didn’t make that flight, McElrea really started to worry. Honeybees don’t do well in extreme heat. McElrea asked that the bees be put in a cooler.

But the next day, the airline told her some bees had escaped from their crates and so Delta put them outside.

“I really panicked when they found they had moved them outside because the pheromones that those honeybees emit are attractive to other honeybees that are native to the area,” she said.

Sure enough, outside bees gathered around the crate, so it looked like more bees were escaping.

McElrea said Delta refused to put the shipment on the plane. So, she turned to the internet for help.

“I got on Facebook and made a quick post to a page that is based in Georgia,” she said.

That’s how she connected with Atlanta beekeeper Edward Morgan. He went to the airport to take a look and found most of the bees in the shipment were already dead from the heat. McElrea said it was 80 degrees in Atlanta that day.

The only thing left to do was to rescue the survivors. Morgan called in reinforcements to open the crates and save whatever individual bees were left.

Gina Galucci with the Georgia Beekeepers Association was one of the dozen-plus volunteers that beelined for the airport. She told WABE’s Emily Wu Pearson Sunday that they understood the urgency of the situation.

“This is a disaster,” Galucci said. “So while we did mobilize very, very quickly, we did that because we know they’re going to die. And so the person who bought these bees is out a whole lot of money. So we’re going to try to help support with some donations toward that.”

people looking at bees
Beekeepers flocked to Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport Sunday to check on the bees and take the survivors home. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

McElrea said these last few days have been a nightmare. She’s scrambling to patch up the mess and hasn’t slept much.

She said the beekeeping business has never been about money for her. Still, she said it’s an incalculable loss.

She said her supplier in California is going to replace the shipment, which included $48,000 worth of bees. She’s also hoping for some sort of relief from the airline, though she understands that for many airlines, people ship live animals at their own risk.

But she’s grateful for the support from the Georgia beekeepers. Some took the few survivors back to their own apiaries.

“I will forever be grateful for anything that they were able to salvage,” she said. “They just assembled quickly and efficiency and really are the heroes in this scenario.”

And while this is the first time she’s experienced such a tragedy, she said it’s not the first time she’s heard of bees dying in transit.

Distributors know how much food to put in crates so the bees can travel safely within a reasonable timeframe. But that becomes complicated when there are delays or cancellations, particularly in extreme climates.

McElrea is coordinating with beekeepers in Seattle so that if there’s a problem with the next shipment, volunteers will be ready to intervene.

Catherine Salm with Delta Airline’s corporate communications said in an email Tuesday the airline is aware of the incident and is working to make sure something similar does not happen again.

“We have been in contact with the customer directly to apologize for the unfortunate situation,” she said.

McElrea wants people to know they can protect these important pollinators in their own backyards. She said gardeners should plant pollinator-friendly plants and avoid spraying toxic chemicals, like RoundUp. Importantly, they shouldn’t be afraid of honeybees, which only sting when they’re in danger.

“Being educated about honeybees is the first big step I think everyone should take on that can help them to just have a better understanding of how important they are as far as pollinators,” McElrea said. “And just such a fragile part of our ecosystem that we as humans are completely dependent on for our survival.”

Now, McElrea and other beekeepers from the Kenai Peninsula are waiting on the second shipment and the replacement, set to come in later this week.

WABE journalists Matt Pearson and Emily Wu Pearson contributed photographs and interviews from Atlanta.

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