Airports Welcome Bees to the Flight Plan

Beekeepers work with their pollinating charges as part of the Flight Path project at Seattle-Tacoma Airport. (Photo: Rod Hatfield).

Airplanes aren’t the only things flying into airports in Seattle, Chicago and Germany. Sea-Tac and O'Hare are following the lead of some of their German peers by placing apiaries (better known as beehives) on airport grounds. The combination of commercial aviation and pollinators might seem odd at first, but it's a smart match when you think about it.

Most airports have huge expanses of unused space. The obvious reason is the need to secure the area around the runways, but the flat, often overgrown fields are also important for alleviating noise. Unfortunately, few animals can live on these unused spaces because they can’t coexist with plane traffic. But bees are a different story. They’re small enough that they don’t pose a danger to landing planes, and they also help maintain the fields with their pollinating activities.

Bee habitats naturally draw creatures such as small birds. At the same time, they are less attractive to species like geese and gulls, which most airports consider pests because they are large enough to cause damage if they strike a plane.

beekeepers at Sea-Tac airport in Seattle with hives
The beehives at Seattle's main.

The beehives at Seattle's main

Making honey and improving ecosystems

At Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the beekeeping program is operated by the airport and a local agriculture nonprofit, Common Ground. Called Flight Path, the hives sit only a couple hundred yards from the runways. In addition to producing honey, the hives are used to breed queen bees that can survive in the local climate. Pacific Northwest apiaries often rely on queens from California that don't do as well in the cooler, wetter Washington climate.

Flight Path is part of a larger initiative to bring native ecosystems to the unused portions of the airport. A nine-hole golf course was closed so that native species could be planted. Though the honeybees in the apiary can help pollinate the newly introduced florae, native bee species are much more effective. Nesting areas for insects like local bumblebees have been included in the golf course makeover project. There's even an exhibit about the Flight Path program inside the airport near Concourse B.

Travelers to Chicago can taste the work of O'Hare's beehives. The honey and items made from the beeswax are sold at the Terminal 3 Farmers Market. Since 2011, O'Hare's apiary has grown to 75 hives, which together house more than 1 million bees. Other Windy City urban beehives include one on city hall's green roof and one in Millennium Park's garden.

honeybees in a hive
The honey from Germany’s airport bees is tested for toxins and is then jarred and given away for free. dni777/flickr

Working to test air quality

In Germany, eight airports use bees not only to produce honey, but also as air quality “biodetectives.” The honey from hives at Dusseldorf, Munich and six other airports are regularly tested for toxins. This is a way to monitor air quality, but it is also good PR. The tests are made public to show that the airline industry is following up on its promise to lower pollution rates.

The idea is that pollutants like carbon monoxide would not only directly affect the bees, but would also affect the flowering plants from which they collect pollen. Because of this dynamic, the bees' honey is the perfect barometer for measuring air quality. Also, the tests do not distinguish between pollutants from airplanes and those from ground activities (emissions from passengers' cars and airport vehicles), so the testing gives an accurate picture of local air quality.

Once the honey in Dusseldorf has been tested (and passed), it's jarred and given away for free. Score one more for good public relations.

The apiaries in Seattle and Chicago have inspired other U.S. airports to jump on the honey train. Saint Louis International, for example, recently leased part of its grounds to beekeepers for a nominal fee.

Looks like the idea of flying the friendly skies just took on a new meaning.