Alaska might not make your list of agriculture hotspots, but it's anything but barren; farmers there raise livestock and grow all kinds of produce.
But growing fruits and vegetables in Alaska isn’t easy, especially on a commercial scale. Aside from the short growing season, a major issue is a lack of pollinators. And one very weird story about a broken box of bees on an airplane illustrates this very point.
According to a paper from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, nobody has yet figured out a way to keep a hive of honey bees—the world’s most popular agricultural pollinator—from dying during the harsh Alaskan winters. Instead, farmers will import bees each spring, typically from down the coast in Washington or elsewhere in the Northwest, and restock their hives for each growing season.
This begs the very weird question of, well, how do you get a hive of bees to Alaska? There are actually a few options. As it turns out, it’s legal to ship a box of bees via the United States Postal Service; few live animals are permitted, but honeybees are on the shortlist. It’s more economical, however, and thus more common, to ship bees via airlines, and Alaska Airlines is one of the most popular carriers.
That’s why it was so weird when Northwest Bee Supply, a company based in Washington state, announced on its website via large, Comic Sans font that Alaska Airlines had banned the shipment of all bees after having damaged some of its shipments. Here’s a quote from that website post, which we’re just going to go ahead and share as an image:
I reached out to Alaska Airlines to find out what the heck happened. Two boxes of bees broke on a flight? And now one of the top bee couriers is banning their transportation? What? Well Bobbie Egan, the airline’s media relations director, clarified the situation for us: “Alaska Airlines and Alaska Air Cargo have NOT banned shipments of bees,” he wrote in an email. “We’ve supported bee movements to Alaska for years, shipping on average 24,000 pounds of bees a year. Just [Monday] we moved three shipments of bees and three more went out [Tuesday], with several more shipments planned before the season ends.”
So what happened here? Here’s Egan again:
It is true that we banned one bee shipper from Portland when he repeatedly did not pack his insects correctly in two separate shipments. The packaging of his shipments last Thursday arrived in ANC with loose netting, causing a number of bees to escape. Our employees did a great job of containing the bees without injury, but it was an unfortunate situation that we go to great lengths to avoid. We did offer to work with the shipper and train him how to safely package and ship his bees, however, he refused our offer. We did refund all charges.
Mike Radford, the owner of Northwest Bee Supply, vehemently denies Egan’s statement. He says that he packaged his bees the same way, in the same boxes, that he has for the past six or seven years, and that the broken box of bees was caused by inappropriate handling. “These guys were throwing them in the baggage compartment and bouncing them off other freight, and it’s like, you can’t do that with anything,” says Radford. “Especially bees!”
Radford has used Alaska Airlines for years due to the lack of other shipping options. He says the USPS would require a rerouting of the bees to Atlanta, a process he doesn’t want to put his bees through. Radford has largely had positive experiences with Alaska Airlines, but says that his last few shipments were riddled with problems: bumped flights, delays, and ill-treatment of his bees that has resulted in several boxes of the much-needed insects dying. He texted me this image to show how roughly the boxes were handled, saying, “Damaged from handling so hard it pulled the big staples out of the packs.”
The episode just goes to show how hard farming can be in unexpected ways; few people realize that a farmer’s season can be killed by, say, rough handling of a package by an airline employee. But bees due for Alaska have to be ordered way in advance, and though Radford refunded his customers, they may not be able to find any more pollinators for this year’s crop.