Bees on a plane? Sea-Tac's honeycomb habitat

Through a revolutionary private-public partnership, Sea-Tac Airport is welcoming 500,000 new winged residents.
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Through a revolutionary private-public partnership, Sea-Tac Airport is welcoming 500,000 new winged residents.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has made a substantial industry innovation. With a new aerial fleet that runs on nectar, it is now one of two or three airports in the country, including Chicago O’Hare, utilizing flower power. The project, called “Flight Path,” marries art, culture and ecology with the creatures upon whose lives we depend to bring all of these together — pollinators.

Flight Path will turn 1,000 acres of airport property into a home for 500,000 bees. The airport has already added three clusters of 4-6 hives and plans to convert 50 plus acres of scrubland surrounding Sea-Tac’s airstrips into pollinator habitat. The work will inform educational art and science events for the public and culminate in an interactive exhibit on the art and science of pollinators in the airport's main concourse. 

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A collection of "Flight Plan" hives at Sea-Tac. Photo: Robert Mellinger 

A partnership of the Port of Seattle, local non-profit The Common Acre and The Urban Bee Company, the exhibit will engage some of the region’s best artists to bring together video footage, data from the hive sites and visual art. An astounding 34 million airport goers are expected to view it over the course of a year, beginning this January. 


Thousands of honey bees hum around us as we approach the first set of hives on a sunny afternoon. A ball of bees hover over a hive entrance. "Lots of new bees were born this week," explains head beekeeper Bob Redmond. Redmond is the founder The Common Acre and The Urban Bee Company, a bicycle-operated honey CSA. "Last time we were looking at a lot of frames of eggs. As they hatch out and get ready to become foragers, they have to take orientation flights. So they are getting their bearings right now."

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Bob Redmond examines a frame of honeybees on Sea-Tac property. Photo: Robert Mellinger

The first phase of the project began in April, when about 16 hives were distributed between three separate locations on the greenbelt that forms Sea-Tac’s 1,000-acre safety buffer zone surrounding the airstrips. "It is amazing standing here with the bees swarming all over you without getting stung. They are incredibly docile," whispers Steve Osmek, the Port of Seattle’s full-time wildlife biologist.


For the past two and a half years, Osmek has worked with Redmond to bring Flight Path to Sea-Tac. "When you have public land like this, you wonder, 'Is this really the best use?' But as I learned more about it, it falls really well into our Environmental Strategic Initiative. It's another of the many projects here for the purposes of conservation, managing habitats in way that we can have a diversity of wildlife without having hazards."

Redmond says he and the co-producer’s at The Common Acre — Kate Fernandez, Rod Hatfield, Amy Baranski and Charlie Spitzack — envision Flight Path as, “a model for civic and cultural engagement nation-wide.” The project's overriding goal: Cultural participation in increasing biodiversity. 

Redmond became a beekeeper with an ecological bent five years ago after reading about colony collapse disorder, a mass collapse of bee colonies around the world, thought by some to be caused by genetically-modified seeds injected with pesticides.

Honey is one sweet product of The Urban Bee Company’s work, but Redmond, whose business was the first bicycle-operated honey CSA in the country, has always maintained the greater ambition of “working to grow healthy bees and resilient communities in the Pacific Northwest.”

As he and his colleagues at The Common Acre see it, creating resilient communities means considering wild habitat, food production, our built environments and our civic consciousness all at once. Honey bees happen to sit at nexus of all of these.

Few have entered into the life and mind of the bee like Redmond has. In a reflective moment, he drew me into some of his bicycle cogitations.

"A worker bee's life span is 6 weeks...And of those 6 weeks, the first 4 weeks are spent inside the hive. And the last 2 weeks only are spent foraging. So when you see bees out, in human years they are like 60 years old. That's it. Then they die. Their wings wear out. They're too fragile. How much would I have to bicycle to only be able to do that for two weeks? If you had to bicycle 500 miles a day for two weeks, you might die at the end of that. These are the thoughts that go through your head dragging honey around the city.”

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A honey bee perches on one of Sea-Tac's many flowering blackberry bushes. Photo: Robert Mellinger

He adds, empathically, “To me that also informs beekeeping practice so you don't do things that collide with the bees' needs."

The preservation and restoration of pollinator habitat is a main reason Redmond approached the Port. The airport, he says, provides a controlled setting not found in many other parts of the city. "Airports are terrific spots for bees and managed pollinator habitat because we know exactly what is on the land and can manage it. These bees aren't corrupted by other bees, industrialized bees, and we can control the genetic strains here, which is something we are actively doing." He adds that the strong genetic strains could become an essential public resource for local beekeepers.

Osmek says the "conservation message and the education component" is what truly convinced the Port to partner with a non-profit and a small private company like Redmond's to make Flight Path happen. These kinds of multidimensional partnerships to utilize public land as preserves for ecosystem services take a lot of new thinking, but are becoming more of a trend with projects like Pollinators Pathway, The Beacon Food Forest and many more. The Port can now include itself among those spearheading such partnerships.

Flight Path builds upon the Port of Seattle's long legacy of pioneering conservation initiatives. It is a history that began in 1977, when the airport became the first to hire a full-time wildlife biologist, Dennis Bulman, to protect airplanes from wild hazards while creating habitat.

In 2000, Osmek, whose life has been devoted to conservation, replaced Bulman and expanded the conservation efforts. So far Osmek and the port environmental department team have created or improved 178 acres of wetlands and 1.5 miles of stream, restored 30+ acres of intertidal and saltwater habitat, added and introduced over 34,000 native plants, innovative stormwater treatment methods and a radar system for avoiding bird strikes.

Osmek envisions the airport's greenbelt as a sort of wildlife refuge where biodiversity is maximized, while certain species — especially larger birds — are controlled to minimize hazards to aircraft. "A key for us at the airport is to minimize the open water environments and try to get this thick overhead woody vegetation that's going to limit access by larger birds like great blue herons, [and] geese." Hawks, ospreys and other raptors are trapped, taken to a falconer to be tagged and tracked, and released farther north.

The dense scrub-shrub habitat at the airport is home to willow flycatchers and a diversity of birds, coyote and some black-tail deer, sighted only a couple of times since the 1970s. The tracks of a bobcat were found there some years ago. Even a black bear, who made its way south from Shoreline back in 2009, stopped by the airport for a visit. 

In addition to managing the landscape to minimize the threat of large birds to aircraft, Osmek adds that, “There's a lot that can be done, especially with the smaller birds, the neotropical migrants, the herps…There's Pacific long-toed salamanders, tree frogs, three species of garter snake. In the streams, there are coho that are threatened in the Puget Sound area.”

In the immediate future, Osmek tells me, "The next step for us is the education component, to educate people about what can be done with the public's habitat — especially as cities are becoming more and more populated. And then looking ahead with the bee project, we are trying to consider how to reinforce pollinator habitat on the port property by making sure we are planting enough things for bees and other pollinators."

And for the bees?

"This has been a really good spring,” Redmond observes, “and we're starting to see a strong nectar flow. They have built up some populations and are gathering food, actually thinking ahead to the winter about how much they need to put away."

In the words of the late Leslie Nielson, “Good luck, we’re all counting on you.”


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