When Sarah McElrea arrived at the Anchorage airport last Friday to pick up the 800 pounds of bees she was shipping from Sacramento, she had her first sense of a disaster in the making: the bees – about five million between them – were in Atlanta, not Anchorage.
The 200 crates of bees were the first of two shipments from Sacramento to serve more than 300 beekeepers in Alaska and provide much-needed pollination services for apple orchards and nurseries, she said in an interview. .
Previous honey bee shipments had traveled to Alaska on Delta Air Lines flights from Sacramento to Seattle and then to Anchorage, a route Ms. McElrea has taken on several occasions. But that cargo, the airline told him, was not re-boarding the flight to Seattle and was instead rerouted through Delta’s hub in Atlanta. The bees would complete their winding journey across the country to Anchorage on Saturday.
Ms. McElrea was concerned, considering that shipping bees comes with some complications: the bees need to be fed along the way (usually sugar water), and they need to be kept cool. His concerns were well placed – millions of bees would die.
Since processing the bee shipment, Delta has “engaged the appropriate internal teams to take immediate action to prevent events of this nature from happening in the future,” said Catherine Morrow, gatekeeper. word of the company, in an e-mail.
Another spokeswoman, Catherine Salm, told Alaska Public Media, “We have been in direct contact with the customer to apologize for the unfortunate situation.”
Bees are not native to Alaska. Ms. McElrea sells many of the bees she imports to local backyard beekeepers, but also contributes to pollination services.
Commercial migratory pollination has become essential to agriculture in many regions as pesticides have decimated the world’s native pollinators, Jimmy Gatt, certified beekeeper and president of the Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association, said in an interview Thursday.
“Pollinated crops such as blueberries, cranberries, oranges, almonds, watermelons – too many to list — depend on these commercial beekeepers,” he added. “That is the paramount importance of bees in our culture.”
Some of Ms. McElrea’s clients, particularly apple orchards and nurseries, depend on shipping bees to pollinate their crops and have a bountiful harvest in the spring and fall.
“People don’t realize how dependent we as a species are on bees for pollination,” Ms McElrea said. “And it’s just such a mess, an absolute tragedy.”
Ms. McElrea asked Delta, the only airline that can ship its bees, to put the bees in a cooler in Atlanta, which she did.
On Saturday morning, the airline told Ms McElrea that the plane which was to carry the bees was unable to secure the crates and that the shipment would have to wait another day, given only one direct daily flight from ‘Atlanta to Anchorage.
On Sunday, Ms McElrea received another distressing call. He was told that the bees had been removed from the cooler and placed on the tarmac because some might have escaped from the crates. It was 83 degrees in Atlanta that day, too hot for the bees to be outside. Placing the bees outside also attracted native bees to the area, which made it difficult for the packages to approach.
She would have to pick up the bees or they would be left outside.
“I’m in Alaska and they’re dying on the East Coast,” Ms. McElrea said. She was frantically searching for a solution when it occurred to her to call the Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association’s swarm hotline – the number to call when she sees a swarm of moving bees. The swarm’s commander, Dave Marshall, put her in touch with Edward Morgan, a member.
Mr Morgan, who says he always gets the ‘small job from the bees’, drove to the airport armed with beehives, bee vacuum cleaners and food for the bees. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he said in an interview Wednesday. But by the time he arrived at the airport on Sunday afternoon, around 25 per cent of Ms McElrea’s bees had already died of heat and starvation, Mr Morgan said.
He realized that the containers had been placed upside down, which prevented the bees from reaching their food. After talking to a few other beekeepers in Georgia, Mr. Morgan concluded that the best solution would be to round up the few remaining bees and donate them.
Mr. Gatt, who did not make it to the airport, and Mr. Morgan emailed and posted notices to members of the Georgia Beekeepers Association and the Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association: There are free bees at the airport, please pick them up.
About 25 people showed up, Morgan said. For hours they searched the packages to see if any of the bees could be recovered. But piles of thousands, then millions of their lifeless bodies continued to grow, while the beekeepers examined the packages.
It’s hard to know how many bees survived because not all of the packages were carefully examined, and some of the bees that found a home struggled to stay alive the following week, Morgan said and Mr Gatt.
“I thought I was going to help this woman get her bees on a plane,” Mr Morgan said. “But it turned into something totally different. The bee community came together. Everyone was trying to make sure these bees would have a home.
Ms. McElrea is now awaiting a replacement and plans to file a claim with Delta to be reimbursed for the $48,000 loss, as transporting livestock is not covered by insurance.
“The worst thing for me was how they suffered, and there was nothing I could do about it,” said Ms McElrea, who said she had slept less than eight hours since the episode.
To avoid another tragedy, Ms. McElrea and her husband plan to fly to Seattle and then drive to Sacramento in vans to pick up replacements. The McElreas will drive the bees to Seattle, then fly with them to Alaska.