Security Checks, Duty-Free Shops and … Beehives?

Beekeepers are using empty public land around Seattle-Tacoma Airport to breed and distribute healthier strains of honeybees.

Seattle-Tacoma Airport is home to many kinds of flights, but we’re not just talking about Boeing 777s. The large tracts of empty land on the site are now home to a half a million honeybees, part of a project intended to improve the health of the region’s pollinators.

In 2011, Bob Redmond of The Common Acre, an organization that works to strengthen community through art and gardening projects, called the commissioner of the airport with an idea. He had heard about beehives being placed around Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, and thought it would be a good idea to borrow. Airport staff agreed.

Why put bees around an airport? The loud and potentially hazardous activity at an airport does not mix well with residential or commercial development, so airports tend to be surrounded by large, bare tracts of land. The land around Seattle-Tacoma Airport is publicly owned, but access to it is restricted. That’s great for beekeepers, who prefer to keep their hives away from the general public.

The project, called Flight Path, boasts 18 beehives housing 500,000 bees. The bees will contribute to the ongoing conservation projects of the Port of Seattle, which operates the airport.

“We really see this as a win-win for the community,” Christina Faine, media specialist for the Port of Seattle, said.

The project is a response to the declines in the honeybee population due to a condition known as “colony collapse disorder.” Just last winter, 31 percent of honeybee colonies in the United States were lost, according a study by The U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Redmond says he hopes that airport projects like Seattle’s will breed hardy, genetically diverse bees that can later be distributed to beekeepers.

While one apiary won’t fix the causes of colony collapse disorder—which are complex and poorly understood—it will improve local pollination and hopefully inspire more individuals and organizations to keep bees.

“My dream is that this becomes a pilot project—no pun intended—that other airports can look at and replicate,” Redmond said.

Bees may seem irritating to some when they form hives near residences and sting people, but they are an invaluable part of the ecosystem.

According to Redmond, bees pollinate 70 out of the 100 plants that make up 90 percent of the human diet. Without bees to pollinate our produce, we would be limited to a narrow range of foods. And that’s not to mention honey.

In January, Seattle-Tacoma Airport will host a bee-themed art and education exhibit in concourse—you guessed it—B. The exhibit, which opens in January 2014, will illustrate the connection between food and transportation.