Ben Shertzer, a wildlife administrator at Pittsburgh International Airport, chased deer from the airfield, removed ducks from the airport retention basin, and escorted finicky raccoons from various terminals. But in August 2012, when thousands of bees landed on the winglets of a Delta plane bound for New York, interrupting the refueling and loading of baggage, he turned to master beekeeper Steve Repasky and said, “This one’s your everything. I’ll stay in the truck.
This was the fourth swarm Shertzer had faced in recent months. By May, around 15,000 bees had obscured a light on Taxiway-C, delaying a flight. At this point, Shertzer began to Google search for beekeepers nearby. He found Repasky, from Meadow Sweet Apiaries, and hired him as a contractor.
Shertzer also began to read about bees. He learned that while some crops can be wind pollinated, most need the help of bees; in the United States alone, bees pollinate more than $ 15 billion in crops each year. (An oft-repeated statistic is that Americans owe one in three bites of food to bee pollination.) But bee numbers, as numerous news articles have noted, have declined dramatically in recent years. Perhaps, Shertzer thought, the airport could accommodate beehives.
Colony Collapse Disorder was first reported in 2006 by Pennsylvania beekeeper David Hackenberg. Hackenberg transports his beehives across the country to pollinate crops: they can travel from Pennsylvania to California to pollinate almond orchards, and then, a few months later, those same hives can be moved to Maine for cultivation. blueberries, then Massachusetts for cranberries. . In 2006, Hackenberg left 400 beehives in a field to pollinate Brazilian pepper trees; when he returned to the hives a month later, all but 36 hives had been abandoned. The bees had just disappeared. The phenomenon was occurring globally: beekeepers in China reported losses of 10 percent, and in Italy, nearly 50 percent. In each case, the majority of the bees had abandoned the hive, leaving behind the queen and a few young.
The causes of the disorder are still unknown, but it is believed to be caused by a combination of pesticides, mites, antibiotics, and malnutrition. In 2013, more than 10 million bee colonies had disappeared around the world. At one point, the situation was so dire that the United States Department of Agriculture airlifted Australian bees in a 747 to California’s Central Valley, where they were released to pollinate almond trees.
Settlement collapse has not been seen in the United States for the past five years, Repasky says. “But that doesn’t mean the threat is gone,” he said. “Bees are always grappling with what we call the four Ps: parasites, pathogens, poor nutrition and pesticides. And that’s what makes Pittsburgh Airport ideal for bees: the air operations area is surrounded by woods and unmowed, overgrown fields. The streams provide moisture for an abundance of wildflowers for fodder; and above all, the airport does not use pesticides.
Shertzer and Repasky asked airport management to place beehives on the property in 2013, but were told the project did not match the airport’s vision. It wasn’t until Christina Cassotis took office as CEO in 2015 that things changed. It turns out that Cassotis’ grandfather was a beekeeper. The airport currently has 110 colonies – nearly four million honey bees – spread over 8,000 acres.
The program benefits the airport as well as the bees. “Swarming is reproductive behavior,” says Repasky. “In the spring, a healthy colony will split in half and take off in a swarm to locate a new home, traveling over a mile or more. As they search, they stop to rest on the first solid object they can find, be it the wing of an airplane, a runway light, or a baggage cart. To combat this behavior, Shertzer and Repasky placed 15 “swarm traps” around the perimeter of the airfield providing bees with alternative landing points. It worked: While the airport had 15 or more swarms per year interrupting flight operations, last year they only had three.
Bees also help airports collect information. One of the oldest programs is a consortium of eight German airports that has been using bees as “bio-detectives” for more than 20 years. By analyzing honey from airport beehives, scientists can determine whether toxins, including certain hydrocarbons and heavy metals, from airplanes and other vehicles at the airport fall within regulated air pollution levels. The honey collected, bottled and distributed free of charge at the airport is comparable to honey produced by bees in areas without heavy industry.
A growing number of US airports, including Chicago O’Hare, Seattle-Tacoma, St. Louis Lambert, Austin-Bergstrom, and Minneapolis-St. Paul — partnered with local beekeepers to set up apiaries on the airport property. It’s a win-win situation: Airports typically have unused land around the area of operations to help suppress aircraft noise. And the type of forage preferred by bees is not as appealing to large mammals (think deer) or geese and seagulls, two species frequently involved in bird strikes.
Even the military got involved. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio installed beehives in 2015 and now has 12, says Danielle Trevino, a biologist at the base. “The base has a fair amount of land adjacent to the Huffman Prairie State Natural Site,” says Trevino. “The base is unique in that we have one of the largest remnants of tall grass prairies in the region. We are the first military base to be designated “Bee City USA”, and we do a lot of outreach in terms of educating the grassroots and the general public about pollinators and why they are important.
Over the years, the Pittsburgh Airport Shertzer has become much more bee-friendly, dealing with any issues if Repasky is not on site. Shertzer even used Google Earth to track the movements of bees at the airport. “The swarms followed a consistent line across the airfield,” he says. “I looked at the data that we had collected over several years and thought: Is this really something that they are doing, or is it stupid luck? “”
The two men believe the bees are following the original hills and ravines that crossed the land that became the airfield. “Pittsburgh is a bunch of hills and valleys, isn’t it? Said Repasky. “To create the airfield, they cut the hilltops and flattened the area. Using past maps, we can see that the bees follow the old topography, historic ridges and valleys. Their favorite homes are the old hollow trees. So even though for us humans these ridges visually end at the airport, bees follow a historic travel path. There is a lot about them that we don’t understand yet. Identifying the bees’ preferred path helped them place swarm traps where they would be most useful.
The airport’s beekeeping program recently won the 2020 Pennsylvania Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence. Ultimately, Shertzer hopes to place signs in the terminal to inform passengers of their efforts. The program is so important to the airport that bees are even factored into the airport planning process for new construction. Pittsburgh is building a micro-grid of 9,000 solar panels so that the airport can generate its own electricity. They hope to incorporate pollinator-friendly bee habitat around the grid when it does. “Right now we need to make sure what we are planting is not appetizing to other wildlife like deer, turkeys or geese,” says Matt Neistein, director of communications.
At present, Shertzer and Repasky are producing a manual for other airports that would like to set up beekeeping programs. “All of this recognition is great for our airport,” says Shertzer. “But at the end of the day, it’s all about the bees.”