ATLANTA – Millions of bees destined for Alaska beekeepers are now dead because of the apparent rerouting of cargo that left the insects exposed to hours of heat on the tarmac of Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson International Airport.
Sarah McElrea, who owns Sarah’s Alaska Honey, was heading up the effort to get the non-native insects to growers and other organizations across the Last Frontier, but on a late March evening, McElrea said Delta Air Lines notified her that the crates of bees she was expecting from Seattle had been shipped to Atlanta because of logistic issues.
The beekeeper said she annually ships bees into Anchorage to help replenish the commercial population killed by Alaska’s harsh winters, but the experience with this cross-country trip of over 200 packages was nothing like what she ever had to deal with before.
To McElrea’s surprise, she learned that the shipment of around 5 million bees missed the non-stop flight to Anchorage from Atlanta and that the workers at the airport put the cargo containers on the tarmac because they thought some of the bees were escaping.
The Alaskan beekeeper immediately contacted the Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association, who had several members race to the airport to check on the status of the insects, but the damage of sitting hours without the proper ventilation had already been done.
"Multiple packages already completely perished, most with 30% or more dead on the bottom and basically actively cooking to death," McElrea wrote on Facebook after hearing the first reports from the association.
One of the people involved in getting help to the airport for the bees was Jimmy Gatt, president of Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association.
"It is common practice for some beekeepers to have packages shipped to them, but this was unprecedented," Gatt said.
Temperatures in the Atlanta area were only in the 80s, but bee experts said the combination of the warm concrete and the poor ventilation of the shipping containers was enough for the insects to suffer heat-stroke-like conditions.
Gatt estimated that his members were able to rescue around 30 percent of the important pollinators, who are now free of their constrictive containers and are at hives and other locations around metro Atlanta.
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McElrea estimated the cost of the bees was $48,000 and plans to work with the airline on not only reimbursement but also to develop a plan for future shipments.
Delta Air Lines says it is reviewing the incident and pledges to make changes in the future for crucial cargo.
A company statement reads:
"Delta was made aware of the shipment situation that occurred on DL2390 from Sacramento to Atlanta and quickly engaged the appropriate internal teams to assess the situation. We have taken immediate action to implement new measures to ensure events of this nature do not occur in the future. We have been in contact with the customer directly to apologize for the unfortunate situation and are working with them to come to a resolution."
In an effort to replace the bees for her hundreds of customers, McElrea made the trip to Sacramento, California, where she plans to drive containers of bees to Seattle and then fly with them to Anchorage.
"It’s just been very surreal ever since that happened. We just haven’t stopped running literally 20-hour days trying to get everything rearranged and rescheduled," McElrea said.
Air shipments are the only reliable method to get the essential insects to Alaska due to Canadian restrictions on most bee transports.