After a large bee swarm on the wing of an aircraft delayed a Delta Air Lines flight at Pittsburgh International Airport in 2012, officials partnered with a local beekeeper to create an on-site apiary program.
Since then, wildlife administrator Ben Shertzer and certified master beekeeper and owner of Meadow Sweet Apiaries Steve Repasky have expanded the program to include nine apiaries that house around 110 colonies—adding up to nearly 4 million honeybees.
Last week, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and Gov. Tom Wolf recognized PIT with a Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence for its airport apiaries.
“The honeybee population is on a decline, so we figured we could do something proactive by relocating them and keeping them on unused land,” Shertzer said. “It’s a win-win for the airport because it’s good for the environment and prevents disruptions to our operations.”
With large amounts of unused land, airports are excellent sanctuaries for a declining honeybee population, which has been threatened by stresses including exposure to pesticides, parasites and poor nutrition.
“Beekeeping is done everywhere, but our apiaries our unique because they are on airport property. That provides a buffer from the factors that cause grief for other beekeepers,” Repasky explained.
Honeybees pollinate 80 percent of flowering crops—about one-third of all consumed food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“We have 8,800 acres, with areas of unused land with creek bottoms, wetlands and overgrown fields—that provides nutrition for the bees and helps them thrive and produce more honey,” Repasky said.
Maintaining the airport apiaries is a year-round activity and can demand 10-hour shifts, with Repasky visiting the hives up to three times a week. He makes fewer visits during the winter, when the bees are dormant. In addition to honey, the apiaries at PIT produce pollen as well as queen bees, which are sold to other beekeepers.
Along with preserving the threatened honeybee population, the program has proven useful in minimizing disruptions similar to the Delta Air Lines flight in 2012.
In exchange for using airport property for beekeeping, Repasky offers the airport free services in helping to prevent and remove swarms. The airfield is lined with a number of swarm traps that are regularly monitored. Since the start of the program, PIT has seen a reduction in bee swarms on the airfield.
In addition to Repasky’s work, PIT monitors the apiaries closely, with help from a USDA biologist, and has partnered with local research groups and universities to provide data and conduct research on swarms and promote honeybee health.
PIT is among the first U.S. airports that have added apiculture, or beekeeping programs, in the past several years. Others include Portland International in Oregon, Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway, Seattle-Tacoma, Indianapolis and St. Louis Lambert, among others.
“We’re unique in the amount of land we have to dedicate to the apiaries,” Shertzer said. “There aren’t a lot of airports that have beekeeping programs at this size and at this level. And it’s not just helping operations, it’s also promoting research and education to sustain the honeybee population.”