A Swarm of Bees Delayed a Flight for Three Hours

When the plane’s engine turned on, the pollinators simply left the aircraft—and passengers were finally able to board

Honeybees on honeycomb
Many airports have implemented pollinator-friendly programs or developed apiaries on their grounds to help support bees. Pixabay

A swarm of bees attached to the wing of a commercial plane in Houston on Wednesday, delaying its departure to Atlanta by about three hours. But despite the temporary hold-up, airline officials didn’t bee-smirch the insects or bee-moan the incident, which went viral on social media. They even managed to have a bit of fun with all the attention it garnered.

“Bee-lieve it or not, Delta flight 1682 on May 3 from Houston-Bush to Atlanta took a delay after a friendly group of bees evidently wanted to talk shop with the winglet of one of our airplanes, no doubt to share the latest about flying conditions at the airport,” says Delta Air Lines spokesman Morgan Durrant in a statement, per USA Today’s Zach Wichter.

The situation began to unfold around 11:30 a.m., while passengers were preparing to board. The bees apparently made themselves comfortable on the Airbus A320’s winglet, or one of the small, upturned tips at the very end of a plane’s wings that help reduce drag and improve fuel efficiency.

The airline did not allow passengers to board the plane while the swarm was still attached, so many watched out the window from inside George Bush Intercontinental Airport. One of those curious passengers was journalist Anjali Enjeti, who live-tweeted the entire chain of events as they unfolded. Her posts quickly attracted attention, racking up thousands of likes, quotes and retweets.

According to Enjeti’s tweets, the airline first tried calling in a beekeeper to help resolve the issue, but later determined that the beekeeper wouldn’t be allowed to touch the plane. At one point, the captain announced to passengers that he was going to try taxiing the plane to see if that would convince the swarm to move along.

Eventually, the airline decided to relinquish the gate to another flight. When the captain turned on the engine to move it out of the way, the bees left of their own volition. The plane moved to another gate, the passengers boarded and it took off without issue. When the flight finally landed in Atlanta around 7:30 p.m. Eastern time, Enjeti tweeted humorously that she imagined the bees “had the time of their lives laughing at all of us.”

Delta officials, for their part, delayed the flight for the safety and welfare of bees, passengers and crew members alike. They wanted to make sure the swarm didn’t accidentally make the plane less safe to fly, per USA Today.

Bees don’t often swarm at airports but, when they do, they tend to cause a scene. In September 2019, bees landed on an Air India plane’s cockpit glass and refused to move until crew members blasted them with water cannons. In September 2018, roughly 20,000 bees swarmed the engine of a Mango Airlines plane in South Africa, ultimately delaying three of the airline’s flights that day. Eventually, experts with a bee removal company arrived and used a palm frond to gently move the bees along. And in March 2017, a swarm clung near the cargo hold of an American Airlines plane in Miami, delaying the flight by about four hours until a beekeeper could arrive to remove them.

Amid growing awareness about the importance of pollinators—and the many threats they now face—airports are getting in on the action to help the winged creatures thrive. Some have implemented “pollinator-friendly practices and programs that restore habitat for bees and bring public awareness and appreciation to these fascinating insects,” according to a 2022 report from the Airport Cooperative Research Program, the Transportation Research Board and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

Facilities such as Germany’s Hamburg Airport, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport have all welcomed bees to their grounds by creating on-site apiaries. The Houston airport, where the recent bee swarm incident occurred, has not implemented an on-site beekeeping program but is considering the idea, reports CNN’s Marnie Hunter.

Pittsburgh International Airport, which created its on-site apiary in 2015, has developed a clever solution to prevent bees from swarming on airport equipment: swarm traps, which give bees somewhere safe to land, as Rebecca Maksel reported for Air & Space magazine in 2021.

“Swarming is reproductive behavior,” as Steve Repasky, the airport’s beekeeper, told Air & Space magazine. “In the spring, a healthy colony will split in half, and will take off in a swarm to locate a new home, traveling upwards of a mile or more. While they’re searching, they’ll stop to rest on the first solid object they can find.”

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