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It’s not just jets that are buzzing around airports

Updated on November 4, 2015

Many airports throughout the world provide a home to honeybees


You've gone through airport security, boarded your 737, stowed your carry-on bag and settled into your seat. As you look out the window and watch the ground-crew direct a jet to a nearby gate, you fail to notice the thousands of other takeoffs and landings happening in the skies around you.

Most air travelers are unaware of all the extra buzzing occurring at an increasing number of airports throughout the U.S., Europe and Canada. Unseen by jet passengers are the millions of European honey bees that live in beehives located a couple hundred yards from airport runways.

As these honey bees fly around the fringes of the airport, collecting pollen and manufacturing honey, they benefit us in several ways.

With urban beekeepers looking for space and airports with large tracts of land, airport beekeeping programs are win-win. Along their perimeters airports have huge expanses of unused space. This area (usually overgrown fields) is needed for taxiway and runway security and to provide a noise buffer between airports and surrounding communities.

Over the years, these tracts of undeveloped airport property have become de facto nature preserves. Few animals can thrive on this land 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 planes as they take off and land and they help maintain the airport’s fields and surrounding flowers and vegetables with their pollination activities.

Bees naturally attract other insects, they in turn attract small songbirds. But they are less appealing to geese and seagulls, which are a menace to aircraft safety. Many airports have programs to eradicate gulls because of the hazards they cause to planes when they hit them or get sucked into jet engines. The Federal Aviation Administration estimates bird strikes cost U.S. aviation $400 million dollars and have resulted in over 200 deaths worldwide since 1988.

Bee Flying Facts:

► A bee flies at 12 mph, about the speed of a bicycle.

► The insect has two pairs of wings that lock together in flight.

► The tiny wings flutter 11,400 times per minute, which makes its distinctive buzz.

The practice of maintaining beehives on airport property began 15-years ago in Germany and gradually spread to other European airports, and to Chicago, Montreal, St. Louis and other North American cities. Currently, there are about a dozen airports with beehives and the number is steadily growing.

One of the U.S. airports with a bee program is the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, known by locals as Sea-Tac. Colonies of honey bees are thriving in 25 beehives in three sites throughout the 1,500 acres of the airport’s perimeter wild lands. Sea-Tac’s bee program, known as Flight Path, is operated by the airport and Common Acre, a local agriculture nonprofit.

Their mission is twofold: produce honey and breed hardier varieties of European bees that will boast the dwindling honeybee population in the local environment.


Bees are “the work horses of our food system,” says Robert Redmond, Common Acre’s director and lead beekeeper. He points out there are many similarities between bees and aviation. Passenger jets and bees both use terminals and runways. Like a jetliner carrying cargo, bees ferry nectar and pollen from flowers and they both consume fuel for their journey.

“Like aircraft, bees have complex communication and navigation systems,” Redmond explained to the Sea-Tac Blog. “Their waggle dance, like the control tower talking to pilots, communicates to fellow workers at the hive where the best sources of nectar and pollen can be found.”

How Bees Pollinate Plants:

Bees busily buzz around flowers searching for sweet nectar. They carry it back to the hive where it’s used to make honey. Bees are not trying to pollinate the plants they visit. But, pollen sticks to them when they land and walk on a red rose, a blue violet or a yellow flower on a tomato plant. When the insect flies to another plant it accidentally rubs the pollen on the second plant pollinating it. Pollination is important in the plant’s life cycle. It starts the production of seeds.

Pesticides contribute to a recent decline in honey bees

Bees are important to man’s health and survival. Their pollination activities result in the growth of 75% of the fruits and vegetables we need to eat to be healthy. Honey bees annually pollinate $24 billion of America’s crops and $215 billion of the crops worldwide.

Recently, there’s been a drastic decline in bees. The number of honey bees throughout the U.S. declined about 40% in 2014. And 58% of the colonies in Ontario did not survive the winter of 2014. While the cause of the rise in bee deaths is uncertain, many scientists believe a widely used pesticide neonicotinoids contributed to the decline.

In 2006, beekeepers throughout the world estimated the loss of bees from 30% to 90%, according to PBS. (See video above.)

The loss of honeybees is “posing an enormously grave threat to human survival. Since no other single animal species plays a more significant role in producing the fruits and vegetables that we humans commonly take for granted,” reports Montreal’s Centre for Research on Globalization.

Bees trained to detect drug and explosive smugglers

U. S. and European officials have another use for bees at their airports. They are training them to detect travelers smuggling drugs and explosives.

Researchers at the University of Cologne have successfully trained honey bees to recognize heroin and cocaine. And scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico are teaching bees to recognize explosives. Both groups anticipate the flying insects could eventually replace sniffer-dogs at airports.

The bees behave like winged Pavlov dogs. “It's classical conditioning,” Thomas Nowotny, a professor at the University of Sussex, told BBC News. “The bees extend their proboscis [tongue] in response to one odor and not in response to another."

Researchers train the bees by rewarding them with some sugar water when they distinguish the specific odor. After a while the bees stick out their proboscis in attempt to lick the sugar water whenever they recognize that specific odor.

Even though they are tiny, scientists can see the bees stick out their tongues, so they know when the insects are near an illegal substance they’ve been trained to identify. –TDowling

Mother Nature Network (
New York Times
Tacoma (Washington) News Tribune
Toronto Globe and Mail

© 2015 Thomas Dowling


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