The bees-at-the-airport disaster story went global––but mass media missed the biggest issues
KENAI, Alaska––More than 300 Alaskan beekeepers, most of them fruit and vegetable farmers, without native honey bees to pollinate introduced food crops, on April 23, 2022 expected to receive two million bees from Sacramento to help start their short growing season.
Soldotna beekeeper Sarah McElrea, who runs Sarah’s Alaska Honey “and also teaches classes and coordinates shipments of bees to beekeepers around Alaska, was waiting at the Anchorage airport” for the 800-pound first of two scheduled shipments, reported Sabine Poux of Kenaii Public Radio, KDLL.
“We had a load going to Fairbanks, and then we had somebody else who was going to distribute from Wasilla to Talkeetna,” McElrea told Poux. “And then we were going to do Anchorage and the [Mat Su] Valley. And then our second load would have come in the following day and we would have taken that one back down to the [Kenai] peninsula to fulfill the rest of our orders.”
Bees bumped from flight
Delta Air Lines, however, bumped the bees from originally scheduled direct flight to Anchorage, then rerouted them to the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
There the bees were to have been put aboard a different direct flight to Anchorage.
By the time the bees reached Anchorage, they would have traveled three times as far as they were booked to travel, and would have been in transit more than four times as long, without food or water.
That alone would have killed most of the bees, even had they not been subjected to the Atlanta heat, in excess of 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
Bad situation made worse
“When they didn’t make that flight, McElrea really started to worry,” Poux reported. “Honey bees don’t do well in extreme heat. McElrea asked that the bees be put in a cooler.
“But the next day, the airline told her some bees had escaped from their crates and so Delta put them outside,” in direct sunlight on the hot pavement.
Testified McElrea, “I really panicked when I found they had moved them outside because the pheromones that honey bees emit are attractive to other honey bees native to the area.”
Resumed Poux, “Sure enough, outside bees gathered around the crate, so it looked like more bees were escaping.”
Didn’t want bees on a plane
Fearing that bees would infest the flight, Delta Air Lines refused to load the crate.
McElrea called Atlanta beekeeper Edward Morgan, a Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association board member. Though they were not previously acquainted, Morgan rushed to help.
Finding most of the bees dead, Morgan summoned more than a dozen other beekeepers to help try to save the rest. The few surviving bees were distributed among the local beekeepers’ hives.
By coincidence, word of the bee-shipping catastrophe first went national and then international on April 29, 2022––the same day that Matilde Nuñez del Prado Alanes of the vegan advocacy news web site Sentient Media published an essay entitled “Insect Farming Might Be Sustainable—But Is It Ethical?”
Agribusiness asks only, “Is it edible? And profitable?”
Long before the 7,000-year history of human beekeeping began, insects were a major part of our ancestors’ diet. Indeed, all mammals alive today are believed to have descended from small insectivores who emerged in the Jurassic epoch.
“According to the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization,” del Prado Alanes explained, insects are “still part of the traditional diet of at least two billion people around the world, mostly in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
Many of the insects on the human menu these days are farmed, no longer excavated from hollow trees and termite mounds with sticks, as our primate ancestors did it and our chimpanzee relatives still do it.
“Such is the case in Thailand,” del Prado Alanes observed, “where experts estimate there are 20,000 small-to medium-scale cricket farms and about 5,000 farms for palm weevil larvae, and in China, where there are even some industrial-scale cockroach farms intended mainly for the production of medicines and animal feed.
“Cambodia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Kenya also have insect farms, mostly for crickets. Most of these farms are small-scale and not technologically developed,” del Prado Alanes assessed.
But the bug business is spreading.
Soldier flies in dog food
“Recently, the European Union authorized the use of insects as animal feed, and the United States approved the use of black soldier flies in dog food. Also,” del Prado Alanes mentioned, “Canada allows the marketing of food products based on insects of some species for both human and animal consumption.”
Added del Prado Alanes before segueing into an extensive discussion of recent research demonstrating insect sentience, “According to Statista, the global edible insect market could grow from $406 million in 2018 to $1.2 billion by 2023. The projections are so high that even some food industry giants, such as Wilbur Ellis, Cargill Inc., and McDonald’s have thrown their hats in the ring.”
50 trillion insects per year
Del Prado Alanes quoted Jeff Sebo, director of the Animal Studies M.A. program at New York University, and Jason Schukraft, senior research manager at Rethink Priorities.
Sebo and Schukraft together recently wrote that, “If industry predictions prove accurate, [insect] farms might soon kill upwards of 50 trillion insects a year. That is more insects killed for food in a single year than the number of mammals killed by humans for food in the entire history of civilization.”
Sebo, Schukraft, and del Prado Alanes overlooked that farmers and the food processing, packaging, storage, and retailing industries probably kill many times more insects per year already, through pesticide applications to protect crops and food awaiting human and animal consumption.
Add to that the trillions of insects killed to protect animals raised for food and fiber from parasites.
In that light, killing 50 trillion insects per year for actual human consumption may not represent a huge increase in the total.
Del Prado Alanes did not mention that agribusiness might be developing interest in insect farming simply because, as public empathy for mammals and birds used in food production rises through the efforts of animal advocates, regulation of farming conditions may increase, whereas hardly anyone advocates for insects.
Bug farming might be more sustainable, but not more ethical
But del Prado Alanes concluded that, “Despite the [insect] industry’s promise to be more sustainable than traditional animal farming, it will be virtually impossible for it to be more ethical. Insect farming won’t reduce animal suffering. It will just add more species to the food system.”
Adding more species to the food system is unlikely, in view the vast inventory of insect species who are already collateral casualties of food production by any means, whether to produce an organic vegan diet or to feed inveterate and unrepentant carnivores.
Many more insect species may, however, soon contribute to the “income” side of agribusiness ledgers, rather than just the “expense” side.
Meanwhile, as academic argument rages over the sentience and capacity for suffering of insects, there has been no serious dispute in modern times about the sentience and capacity for suffering of birds.
Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989), a founder of the science of ethology, or animal behavior science, initially studied graylag geese and jackdaws as surrogates for human behavior, before focusing exclusively on animal behavior, and before collaborating to an uncertain extent with the Third Reich, which he later denounced, in orchestrating the Holocaust.
Despite the practically undisputed sentience and capacity of birds for suffering, and in paradoxical contrast to the global explosion of concern and outrage over the deaths of the two million bees who roasted to death on the pavement at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, practically no one noticed the comparable deaths of 5.3 million hens at a Rembrandt Foods egg barn complex in Rembrandt, Iowa, until more than a month afterward.
While the bees might be said to have died accidentally, through human stupidity, the hens were killed deliberately, through a perverse exercise of human intelligence to find the most cost-efficient response to an outbreak of the H5N1 avian influenza.
Hardly anyone who was not directly involved might ever have noticed, despite protests orchestrated by Direct Action Everywhere, if Chris McGreal of the British-based Guardian newspaper chain had not headlined on April 28, 2022, “U.S. egg factory roasts alive 5.3 million chickens in avian flu cull – then fires almost every worker.”
“Ventilation shutdown plus”
Before McGreal, only Tom Cullen of the weekly Storm Lake Times, reaching about half as many readers as ANIMALS 24-7, had revealed that Rembrandt Foods culled the hens “using a system known as ‘ventilation shutdown plus,’” McGreal summarized, “in which air is closed off to the barns and heat pumped in until the temperature rises above 104 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Recalled McGreal, “An animal rights group, Animal Outlook, used freedom of information laws to obtain records of experiments at North Carolina State University that show ‘ventilation shutdown plus’ causes ‘extreme suffering’ to the hens as they ‘writhe, gasp, pant, stagger and even throw themselves against the walls of their confinement in a desperate attempt to escape.”
The same method was used to kill millions of perfectly healthy pigs in 2020 when COVID-19 outbreaks among slaughterhouse workers caused a systemic backup in pig slaughter, transport, and breeding.
Rather than feed the pigs for extra weeks, eroding profits, agribusiness chose to use “ventilation shutdown plus” to cook them to death.
All killing is not “euthanasia”
James Roth, director of the Center for Food Security & Public Health at the Iowa State University college of veterinary medicine, acknowledged to McGreal, McGreal wrote, “that ‘ventilation shutdown plus’ causes more suffering than other forms of culling,” such as flooding barns with firefighting foam, “but said it is the most efficient means of containing the spread of bird flu because it is relatively swift.”
Explained Roth, “The rationale is that the influenza virus spreads so fast it will go through a poultry house really rapidly. All of those birds produce massive amounts of virus in the air. Then you have a big plume of virus coming from that house that spreads to other poultry houses. It’s critical to get the birds euthanized before that virus becomes a huge plume of virus to spread.”
Roth should know that torturing animals to death does not fit the dictionary definition of euthanasia as “the practice of intentionally ending life to relieve pain and suffering.”
What the public should know
What the public should know, and the practice of “ventilation shutdown plus” demonstrates, is that animal suffering is really of no concern to agribusiness, whether the victims are bees, hens, or for that matter the 250-odd Rembrandt Farms employees who were thrown out of work when all of the 5.3 million hens were dead and buried.
What the public should also know is that while there is no escaping the collateral harm done to insects in food production, even by organic farmers who kill bugs by means other than chemical pesticides, complicity in the suffering of animals from the largest to the smallest is most easily reduced by simply not eating animals and animal byproducts.