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Millions of bees sat dying on an asphalt in Atlanta. Beekeepers ran to help.

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Edward Morgan had a relaxing Sunday at his home near Atlanta when a hectic call came from a beekeeper in Alaska.

She had an urgent prayer: Could he rush over to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on a rescue mission? About 5 million honeybees languished in limbo on a hot asphalt 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, April 24th.

The 200 packets of bees she had ordered for her company, Sarah’s Alaska Honey, were to be shipped from Sacramento to Seattle on April 22 and then on to Anchorage, she told him.

Instead, because there was not enough room in the cargo hold for the bees on the Seattle plane, Delta Air Lines sent the shipment to Georgia to be placed on a larger plane that would then fly to Alaska. But it 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 had 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 cleaner, my beehives and a lot of other equipment,” he said. “I had no idea what to expect.”

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McElrea told airport workers that Morgan was on his way to help with the emergency, so when he arrived, he was immediately taken to an outdoor cargo area at the Delta hub.

He said he was hurting as he took a closer look at McElrea’s 800-pound shipment, which was split into packages, each containing five screened wooden frames with tens of thousands of bees each.

Lifeless bees were sprinkled over crates.

“I vacuumed the dead up so I saw there were several packages where each bee was dead,” Morgan said. “I thought, ‘Whoa, this is not good,'” he said.

He called McElrea at her home in Soldotna, Alaska, to give her the bad news.

“These bees are not going to make it,” he remembered telling her.

“We came to the conclusion that in order to save the bees that were left, we would have to give them away to beekeepers around Atlanta,” he said.

McElrea agreed that there was no way the remaining bees – part of an order for two shipments costing $ 48,000 – would survive even more hours of flight.

“I was literally sobbing on the phone,” she said. “I was crushed on the bees, but also on behalf of my customers. I had pre-sold most of the bees to local beekeepers. Air freight shipping is the only way to get bees up here in Alaska. “

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McElrea asked Morgan to tell other beekeepers in Atlanta that if they would go to the airport to help find surviving bees, they could get them at no cost.

So Morgan called Jimmy Gatt, president of the Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association, 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 out the packages and rescue the agitated survivors, Gatt, 48, said.

“Many of our beekeepers were devastated by 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 drive to the airport.

“When we started pulling them out section by section, we saw a lot of death and destruction,” said Evans, 63, who owns 13 hives on his Atlanta property.

He said that of the 10 packets of bees he took home and placed in hives, half did not reach.

“I have two who thrive [packages] and two who will probably make it, but the fifth is doubtful, ”he said. “And of the seven queens which I brought home, two of them died.”

Gatt estimated that about 70 percent of McElrea’s bees died due to two factors.

The bees had to be kept cool during transport, he said, and they demanded a constant supply of sugar water as a substitute for food while on the journey. No one expected them to be in limbo for days.

“They did not have enough food for three days at the airport, and some of them had some 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 arose on DL2390 from Sacramento to Atlanta and quickly engaged the relevant internal teams to assess the situation,” said Catherine Morrow, a spokeswoman for the company.

“We have taken immediate action to implement new measures to ensure that events of this nature do not occur in the future,” she said.

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These measures come too late for McElrea, 48, who said she was shocked when she went to Anchorage airport on April 22 to pick up the bees and discovered they had been diverted to Atlanta.

In Atlanta, the bees could not be loaded on the plane to Alaska because the cargo hold belt 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 diverted.

“Then someone moved the bees outside because they thought some of them were trying to escape,” she said.

There were bees and overheating on the asphalt. McElrea said she called several times to try to get them on a plane to Alaska.

Days later, while the bees were still there, McElrea decided she needed local beekeepers to intervene.

“I still do not know why they sat there for so long,” she said of the bees sitting in an outside cargo hold.

McElrea, who has worked in the honey and beekeeping industry 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 accounted for half of her honey bee order for the year, she said.

“Bees in Alaska are a work of love – they are not resident here, and it’s a lot of work to get the bees through the winter,” she said. “About 350 beekeepers rely on us every spring to get through with new supplies.”

Honeybees are essential for pollination of orchards, nurseries and kitchen gardens throughout Alaska and the rest of the country, she added.

“We have fruit trees in bloom and people were dependent on getting their bees,” McElrea said. “This has taken a toll, but I will 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 drive thousands of miles over several days to Sacramento to pick up millions of bees to replace the dead colonies.

“We take them to Seattle in air-conditioned vans and put them on direct flights to Alaska,” she said. “After what happened, we will be extra careful.”

Although millions of bees were lost, McElrea said she will always be grateful to Morgan and the other beekeepers in the backyard who gathered to give the survivors homes in their own hives.

“In such a heartbreaking moment, it gave me hope to know that there was at least a chance that some of them would make it,” she said. “To me, Atlanta’s beekeepers are heroes.”

Morgan said it lifted his spirits to see so many beekeepers working urgently together to rescue honey bees in 80 degree heat on the asphalt that day. It was a difficult situation, but it could have been much worse.

“If we had not joined together to do this, every single bee would be dead,” he said. “I am just happy to be able to help save some of them. They are important. “

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