THE WASHINGTON POST — Edward Morgan was spending a relaxing day at his home near Atlanta when a frantic call came in from a beekeeper in Alaska.
She had an urgent call: Could he rush to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport for a rescue mission?
About five million bees languished in limbo on hot tarmac because the airline had sent them to Georgia instead of Alaska.
Morgan, a hobby beekeeper who lives in Marietta and is a member of the Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association, said he heard the panic in Sarah McElrea’s voice and knew he had to hurry that day.
The 200 packages of bees she ordered for her business Sarah’s Alaska Honey were to be sent from Sacramento to Seattle and then to Anchorage, she told him.
Instead, because there wasn’t enough cargo space for the bees on the plane to Seattle, Delta Air Lines sent the cargo to Georgia to be put on a larger plane that would then fly there. ‘Alaska. But that never happened.
McElrea got Morgan’s phone number when she called a swarm bee hotline in Atlanta to explain her predicament, he said.
“It was very hot outside and the bees needed to be kept cool and they needed sugar syrup to survive,” Morgan, 56, said.
“Sarah told me it was urgent, so I rushed to the airport with my bee vacuum, bee boxes and a bunch of other gear,” he said.
“I didn’t know what to expect.”
McElrea told airport workers that Morgan was on his way to help with the bee problem, so upon arrival he was immediately taken to a cargo area outside the Delta hub.
He said he was pained when he looked closely at McElrea’s 800-pound shipment, which was split into packages each containing five wire mesh wooden frames each containing tens of thousands of bees.
Lifeless bees were strewn over boxes.
“I sucked up the dead, then saw that there were multiple packs where each bee was dead,” Morgan said. “I was like, ‘Whoa – that’s not good,'” he said.
He called McElrea at her home in Soldotna, Alaska to tell her the bad news.
“These bees won’t make it,” he remembers telling her.
“We came to the conclusion that to save the bees that were left, we had to give them to beekeepers around Atlanta,” he said.
McElrea agreed there was no way the remaining bees – part of a two-shipment order costing US$48,000 – would survive another hours-long flight.
“I was literally sobbing on the phone,” she said. “I was devastated for the bees, but also for my customers. I had pre-sold most of the bees to local beekeepers. Shipping by air freight is the only way to bring bees here to Alaska.
McElrea asked Morgan to let other Atlanta beekeepers know that if they went to the airport to help find any surviving bees, they could have them at no cost. So Morgan called Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association president Jimmy Gatt and asked him to send a “free bees” email to the group.
About 25 beekeepers answered the call and rushed to the airport to help sort through the packages and rescue the agitated survivors, said Gatt, 48.
“A lot of our beekeepers were heartbroken that the bees were dying,” he said. “It inspired a certain sense of community in the group for everyone to do what they could to save as many bees as possible.”
Joby Evans was among those who dropped everything to get to the airport.
“When we started pulling them out section by section, we saw a lot of death and destruction,” said Evans, 63, who has 13 hives on his property in Atlanta.
He said that of the 10 packs of bees he brought home and placed in hives, half did not survive.
“I have two (packages) that are successful and two that probably will, but the fifth is questionable,” he said. “And of the seven queens I brought home, two of them died.”
Gatt estimated that about 70% of McElrea’s bees died due to two factors.
The bees needed to be kept cool during transport, he said, and they needed a steady supply of sugar water as a food substitute during the journey. No one expected them to be in limbo for days.
“They didn’t have enough food for three days at the airport and some of them suffered from heat stress,” he said.
Delta Air Lines was quick to issue an apology to McElrea, along with a statement.
“Delta was made aware of the shipping situation that occurred on DL2390 from Sacramento to Atlanta and promptly engaged the appropriate internal teams to assess the situation,” company spokeswoman Catherine Morrow said.
“We took immediate action to implement further measures to prevent events of this nature from happening again in the future,” she said.
These measures come too late for McElrea, 48, who said she was stunned when she drove to the Anchorage airport to pick up the bees and found they had been redirected to Atlanta.
In Atlanta, the bees could not be loaded onto the plane bound for Alaska because the cargo restraint strap mechanism used to secure heavy loads was broken, she said.
She said the airline told her the bees would be refrigerated until they could be re-routed.
“Then someone moved the bees outside because they thought some of them were trying to escape,” she said.
There the bees stayed, warmed up on the tarmac. McElrea said she called several times trying to get them on a flight to Alaska.
A few days later, with the bees still around, McElrea decided she needed local beekeepers to
“I still don’t know why they sat there for so long,” she said of the bees sitting in a cargo area outside.
McElrea, who has worked in the honey and bee supply industry for 22 years, said she plans to file a claim soon in hopes Delta will pay for her bee replacements. The dead bees made up half of her bee order for the year, she said.
“The bees in Alaska are a labor of love — they’re not native here, and it’s a lot of work to get the bees through the winter,” she said. “About 350 beekeepers depend on us every spring to make new deliveries.”
Bees are crucial for pollinating orchards, nurseries and vegetable gardens throughout Alaska and the rest of the country, she added.
“We have fruit trees in bloom and people were relying on their bees,” McElrea said. “It’s taken a toll, but I’m going to do everything in my power to bring new bees here.”
She and her husband Brandon McElrea have now received the second part of their initial order and are relieved to find the bees in excellent condition. This week, they travel thousands of miles over several days to Sacramento to collect millions of bees to replace colonies that have died.
“We’ll take them to Seattle in air-conditioned vans and put them on direct flights to Alaska,” she said. “After what happened, we want to be extra careful.”
Although millions of bees were lost, McElrea said she would always be grateful to Morgan and other backyard beekeepers who stepped up to give survivors homes in their own hives.
“During such a heartbreaking moment, it gave me hope to know that there was at least a chance that some of them would make it through,” she said. “To me, Atlanta beekeepers are heroes.”
Morgan said it lifted her spirits to see so many beekeepers urgently working together to save the bees in the 80-degree heat on the tarmac that day. It was a difficult situation, but it could have been much worse.
“If we hadn’t come together to do this, every bee would have died,” he said. “I’m glad we were able to help save some of them. They are important.