Edward Morgan was having a relaxing Sunday at his home near Atlanta when a frantic call came in from a beekeeper in 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 over that day, April 24.
The 200 packages of bees she’d ordered for her business, Sarah’s Alaska Honey, were supposed to be sent from Sacramento to Seattle on April 22, then on to Anchorage, she told him.
Instead, because there wasn’t enough room in the cargo hold for the bees on the plane in Seattle, Delta Air Lines sent the shipment to Georgia to be placed on a larger plane that would then fly to Alaska. But that never happened.
McElrea got Morgan’s phone number when she called a bee swarm hotline in Atlanta to explain her predicament, he said.
“It had been really hot outside and the bees needed to be kept cool and they needed sugar syrup to survive,” said Morgan, 56.
“Sarah told me it was urgent, so I hurried over to the airport with my bee vacuum, my bee boxes and a bunch of other equipment,” he said. “I had no idea what to expect.”
McElrea told airport workers that Morgan was on his way to help with the bee situation, so when he arrived, he was taken immediately to an outdoor cargo area at the Delta hub.
He said he was pained when he took a close look at McElrea’s 800-pound shipment, which was divided into packages that each contained five screened wooden frames holding tens of thousands of bees each.
Lifeless bees were sprinkled across boxes.
“I vacuumed up the dead ones, then I saw there were several packages where every bee was dead,” Morgan said. “I was like, ‘Whoa — this is not good,’ ” he said.
He called McElrea at her home in Soldotna, Alaska, to give her the bad news.
“These bees aren’t going to make it,” he recalled telling her.
“We came to the conclusion that to save the bees that were left, we’d have to give them away to beekeepers around Atlanta,” he said.
McElrea agreed that there was no way that the remaining bees — part of a two-shipment order costing $48,000 — would survive another several-hour flight.
“I was literally sobbing on the phone,” she said. “I was devastated for the bees, but also for my customers. I’d presold most of the bees to local beekeepers. Shipping by air cargo is the only way to get bees up here in Alaska.”
McElrea asked Morgan to get the word out to other beekeepers in Atlanta that if they’d go to the airport to help find surviving bees, they could have them at no cost.
So Morgan called Jimmy Gatt, president of the Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association, and asked him to send out a “free bees” email to the group.
About 25 beekeepers answered the call and hurried to the airport to help sort through the packages and rescue the agitated survivors, said Gatt, 48.
“A lot of our beekeepers were heartbroken over the fact that bees were dying,” he said. “It inspired some community spirit 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 race to the airport.
“When we started pulling them out section by section, we saw a lot of death and destruction,” said Evans, 63, who keeps 13 hives on his property in Atlanta.
He said that of the 10 packages of bees he took home and placed in hives, half didn’t make it.
“I have two thriving [packages] and two that will probably make it, but the fifth is questionable,” he said. “And of the seven queens I took home, two of them died.”
Gatt estimated that about 70 percent of McElrea’s bees died because of two factors.
The bees needed to be kept cool during transport, he said, and they required a steady supply of sugar water as a food substitute while on the voyage. 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 had suffered 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 shipment situation that occurred on DL2390 from Sacramento to Atlanta and quickly engaged the appropriate internal teams to assess the situation,” said Catherine Morrow, a company spokeswoman.
“We have taken immediate action to implement new measures to ensure events of this nature do not occur in the future,” she said.
Those measures come too late for McElrea, 48, who said she was stunned when she went to the Anchorage airport on April 22 to pick up the bees and discovered they’d been rerouted to Atlanta.
In Atlanta, the bees couldn’t be loaded onto the Alaska-bound plane because the cargo hold 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 rerouted.
“Then somebody moved the bees outside because they thought some of them were trying to escape,” she said.
There the bees stayed, overheating on the tarmac. McElrea said she called multiple times trying to get them on a flight to Alaska.
Days later, when the bees were still there, McElrea decided she needed local beekeepers to intervene.
“I still don’t know the reason why they sat there for so long,” she said of the bees sitting in an outside cargo hold area.
McElrea, who has worked in the honey and bee supply business for 22 years, said she plans to file a claim soon in hopes that Delta will pay for her bee replacements. The bees that died made up half of her honeybee order for the year, she said.
“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 come through with new deliveries.”
Honeybees are crucial for pollinating fruit 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 getting their bees,” McElrea said. “This has taken a toll, but I’m going to do everything in my power to get new bees up here.”
She and her husband, Brandon McElrea, have now received the second part of their original order and were relieved to find the bees in excellent condition. This week, they’re driving thousands of miles over several days to Sacramento to pick up millions of bees to replace the colonies that 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 will always be grateful to Morgan and the other backyard beekeepers who rallied to give the survivors homes in their own hives.
“During such a heartbreaking moment, it gave me hope to know there was at least a chance some of them would make it,” she said. “To me, the Atlanta beekeepers are heroes.”
Morgan said it lifted his spirits to see so many beekeepers working urgently together to save honeybees in 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 single bee would have died,” he said. “I’m happy that we could help save some of them. They’re important.”