Georgia beekeepers rescue thousands of dying bees from Atlanta airport

Wooden packages of bees are stacked in an airport cargo container outside. Many of the bees in the packages are dead.
Thousands of bees died as containers of beehives en route fro Sacramento, Calif., to Anchorage, Ala., were left outside in the spring sun while stuck in transit for four days in Delta Air Lines cargo storage at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. (Matthew Pearson/For WABE)

Edward Morgan took a hammer and chisel to a syrupy wooden plank with five packages of bees attached.

Most of the bees inside were dead.

Morgan and more than 20 other beekeepers from the Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association (MABA) rescued thousands of bees that had gotten stuck in transport at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport on Sunday evening.

A beekeeper examines a package of mostly dead bees at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport on Sunday evening. (Matthew Pearson/For WABE)

More than 600 pounds of bees were supposed to go from Sacramento to Anchorage, but, due to flight cancellations, the bees ended up at the Delta cargo bay in Atlanta. After four days, the bees started to escape and the cargo containers were moved outside, where the spring sun baked down on the containers, killing thousands of bees.

“It’s devastating to see that many dead,” said Julia Mahood, a Georgia Master Beekeeper. “Just clumps of dead bees that had no chance because they were left outside with no food and basically got lost in Delta’s machinery.”

Just before 8 p.m. Sunday, MABA sent out an emergency email to its nearly 500 members saying that dying bees needed homes. For the next hour, a steady stream of beekeepers arrived at the airport to help triage, check to see if the queens had survived and spray sugar water to feed whatever bees were still alive.

Beekeepers checking to see if a queen in one of the packages of bees had survived. (Matthew Pearson/For WABE)

Ellen Ausley drove to the airport from Tucker as soon as she got the email. She runs Sneaky Bee Backyard Honey with her family and just partnered with the city to install apiaries at the Tucker Nature Preserve.

Ellen Ausley shines a flashlight into one of two cargo boxes of bees. (Matthew Pearson/For WABE)

“With the healthier packages, we will try to establish independent colonies,” she said. “But for the rest, we hopefully can introduce the worker bees into already successful colonies.”

By the end of the night, Morgan estimated at least half the bees had died.

Delta did not respond to requests for comment by the time of this article’s publication.