Millions of honeybees are dead after a flight carrying the pollinator insects from California to Alaska got diverted to Georgia, leading to the bees sitting in crates on the hot airport tarmac.
“The worst part about it for me is how they suffered, and there was not a single thing I could do about it,” Sarah McElrea, who had ordered the bee shipment, told The New York Times.
McElrea runs a honey company, and also sells bees to backyard beekeepers and commercial pollination services in Alaska. Last week, she was in Anchorage awaiting a shipment of 800 pounds of bees ― about 5 million individual bees ― when Delta Air Lines told her that the bees wouldn’t fit on the plane and were going to be rerouted through Atlanta, according to The Associated Press.
Honeybees on a beehive frame. (Photo: visualspace via Getty Images)
The bees were supposed to wait in Atlanta until they could catch a new flight. Initially, Delta was keeping the bees in a cooler indoors, but when they started escaping the next day, the company moved them outside onto the hot tarmac, where the crates baked in the sun.
Worried about the fate of the bees, McElrea contacted local Georgia beekeeper Edward Morgan for help. Morgan went to the scene and found that many of the bees had already died, Alaska Public Media reported. In addition to the heat stress in the 83-degree weather, the bees’ containers had also been positioned in such a way that they couldn’t get to the food that was supposed to sustain them for the journey, he told the Times.
Delta spokesperson Catherine Morrow called what happened an “unfortunate situation” and told the AP that the company had apologized to McElrea. She added that Delta has “taken immediate action to implement new measures to ensure events of this nature do not occur in the future.”
When it became apparent how dire the situation was, beekeepers in the area coordinated to rescue as many of the survivors as possible. More than 20 beekeepers showed up, breaking open crates, providing emergency sugar water to feed the bees, and transporting them to new homes. The exact number of dead bees is unknown, Morgan estimated “at least half” died, he told local news station WABE.
McElrea told Alaska Public Media she’s thankful for the beekeepers’ rescue efforts.
“I will forever be grateful for anything that they were able to salvage,” she said, adding that they “really are the heroes in this scenario.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.