Back in 2012, Ben Shertzer, wildlife administrator at Pittsburgh International Airport, found himself dealing with a perplexing problem: swarming bees. The bees would land on the winglets of an aircraft, which interrupts refueling and baggage loading, or they would obscure lights on the taxiways, delaying flights.
After four encounters with honeybee swarms, Shertzer did a bit of his own research and discovered that thanks to human activity, pollinator populations are in decline, which isn’t just bad news for these species, but also a threat to our food security.
He also found that these swarming honeybees were suffering from colony collapse disorder. This means that bees are disappearing in unprecedented numbers from their hives. Experts are still uncertain of the causes of this disorder, but they believe it’s brought on by a combination of pesticides, mites, the use of antibiotics, and malnutrition.
With this information in mind, Shertzer decided to employ the help of master beekeeper Steve Repasky in the hope of addressing the problem. Instead of trying to rid the airport of honeybees, he thought that a more eco-friendly solution would be for the airport to host some hives.
Luckily, Pittsburgh airport is an ideal location for honeybees. The surrounding woods and un-mowed and overgrown fields surround the airport operations area, while creeks offer moisture for an abundance of wildflowers. Most importantly, the airport doesn’t use pesticides.
Shertzer and Repasky proposed their idea to place hives on airport property in 2013. Now the airport has 110 colonies (about four million honeybees) spread over 8,000 acres. Plus, with the introduction of “swarm traps” around the perimeter of the airfield, the bees are provided with alternative landing spots so they don’t swarm planes or personnel.
This movement has gained momentum with numerous U.S. airports reaching out to local beekeepers to set up similar projects on their properties.
Shertzer and Repasky’s beekeeping program recently won the 2020 Pennsylvania Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence. Shertzer hopes to increase program awareness by placing signs within the terminal that educate passengers about their efforts. For now, Shertzer and Repasky are producing a manual for other airports that want to follow suit by establishing a plan to protect their local pollinators.