Honeybees sometimes fly commercial, and it doesn’t always go smoothly for them either

Image: Alicia Esquivel/University of Texas at Austin
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You’re not the only one with airline woes. A shipment of bees destined for Alaska were found dead last week, during a layover in Seattle.

Each year around this time, millions of honeybees are loaded onto commercial flights and shipped up to Alaska. They can’t survive the state’s harsh winters so Alaskan beekeepers buy them from dealers in warmer US states, like Washington and Oregon. Once the imported insects arrive, they feast on the nectar of wildflowers, and produce some premium honey.

But the journey is risky, as Mike Radford, a bee seller from Washington state, discovered earlier this month. He said Alaska Airlines bumped his 1,400 pounds of boxes full of bees from a nonstop flight to Anchorage, routing them instead through Seattle, where several boxes of them busted open when bags and other cargo were unloaded. He traveled to Seattle to intercept the load that was in storage.

“My heart sank. All the bees were dead,” said Radford, who has been selling bees in the northern US for more than a decade. The load was worth more than $23,000, he added.

Some of his bees that were put on an earlier flight to Anchorage also encountered trouble—they escaped their hives. The airline alleged that poor packaging by Radford was to blame for the bees’ escape. ”We’ve supported bee movements to Alaska for years, shipping on average 24,000 pounds of bees a year,” a spokeswoman for the airline said. “We treat bees probably like the most fragile living being we ship, since we know the role they play in the state of Alaska.”

The dispute shows the difficulties and stress traveling large distances in hectic airports can have on animals, even on insects. Most recently, a UK-based rabbit breeder feuded with United Airlines after a giant rabbit named Simon that she shipped was found dead in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport after flying in from London.

Bees are easily stressed, and sensitive to temperature changes. (It’s not only beloved four-legged pets that may not survive the stress of air travel.) Radford alleges that it was exposure to extreme temperatures—heat on the tarmac and cold when they were stored at Seattle’s airport—that killed the bees that were bumped from their nonstop flight.

“You don’t bump bees,” Radford said. “You just don’t do it.”

Other shippers, including the US Postal Service, will transport bees, but Radford long preferred the nonstop flights to Anchorage that Alaska Airlines operated from Portland, Oregon.

Radford said he is going to figure out how to create more secure containers for his bees for next season.