California firefighters recall battle with bee swarm aboard plane

By Nick Timiraos
The Wall Street Journal

As pilot Brian Murphy prepared for a flight from Burbank's Bob Hope Airport to San Francisco in May, his ground crew alerted him to a problem on his Beechcraft King Air 200: A five-foot-wide blanket of bees was draped over the plane's left engine cover, and bees were finding their way into an engine compartment and even into the cockpit.

"I was just shocked," said the charter pilot, 36, who raced to shut the cockpit's open vent windows. "Within just 20 minutes, there were thousands of bees that had moved onto the exhaust area." He considered turning on the engines to shoo away the swarm but decided that that might make matters worse by agitating the bees.

The bewildered crew didn't know what to do either, but the Burbank Airport Fire Department knew the drill. "I could hear them yell down into their fire shack, `It's time to go spray the bees again,' " recalled Steven Schell, the general manager for Mercury Air Center-Burbank.

Firefighters sprayed the plane with an insecticide foam that suffocates bees. "They were dropping straight to the ground, whole big chunks of them," Murphy said. Then the pilots vacuumed up three dozen bees that had entered the cockpit.

"Snakes on a Plane" may be the hot horror movie of the summer, but bees on planes are creating the most buzz in aviation circles.

Africanized honeybees the infamous "killer bees" are increasingly making unscheduled layovers at airports across the Southwest. The aggressive bees, which entered the United States from Mexico in the early 1990s, like to travel across open spaces and stop to rest whenever the queen gets tired. Airports have few trees or other natural rest stops. That makes planes, jet ways, baggage-loading equipment, terminals and parking garages popular for stopovers.

Consequently, pilots and mechanics sometimes find thousands of bees burrowing in engine covers, clinging to cockpit windshields or swarming in the luggage compartment.

"The Africanized honeybee changed everything," said David Marder, the owner of Bee Busters, who has been called out to Orange County's John Wayne Airport more than 20 times this year.

Gordon Guillory, a Southwest Airlines mechanic, knew something wasn't right when he arrived at a hangar at Love Field in Dallas last April: A buzzing noise was coming not from the engine but from the tail of the Boeing 737-700.

"You really couldn't see them, but you knew there were tons of them in there ... ," he said. "I've been working on airplanes for 15 years and I've never, ever seen anything like it."

The mechanics watched from a safe distance as a beekeeper smoked out and vacuumed up the bees.

Scents and colors also attract the bees. "For whatever reason, they seem to like the smell of jet fuel, and especially the yellow color of the Southwest airplane," said Judy Alexander, senior director of operations at Tucson International Airport.

Authorities there took action in 1995 after a swarm on the outside of the air-traffic control tower led some stragglers into the command center. The problem "had to end there," Alexander said. "You just can't evacuate the tower." The airport installed traps that emit a bee-attracting pheromone; they capture between 60 and 80 swarms every year.

While bees don't pose a serious threat to planes, bee experts advise against the temptation to use the engines to suck in and kill a swarm of the uninvited passengers. Bees carry a small amount of honey with them when they travel, and if a jet engine ingested a swarm, "it could do some damage," said George Botta, a Las Vegas exterminator who serves on Nevada's Board of Agriculture. "It's not as bad as hitting a flock of birds, but it'd be like pouring a tank of honey into the engine."

While the problem is mostly limited to the Southwest, the bees, as stowaways, can become an issue for everyone. In 2001, a ground crew at an airfield in Greenfield, S.C., discovered an Africanized honeybee colony inside the wing of an aircraft that had just arrived from Arizona.

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