The world has been talking about disappearing bees, or Colony Collapse Disorder, for nearly a decade now. Bees contribute enormously to our global food supply by pollinating the many fruit, nut, vegetable, legume, and seed crops we eat. In fact, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that bees pollinate 71 of the 100 crop species that provide 90% of the world’s food.
Plight of the honeybee
Scientists have hypothesized numerous causes for Colony Collapse Disorder, including a limited diet from monocropping (in which bees are trucked from farm to farm to pollinate vast quantities of only one plant type); changing climate and weather patterns; pesticides; and pathogens. Increasing numbers of researchers have suspected the world’s most popular group of agricultural pesticides, called neonicotinoids, as a primary cause. Last year, a Harvard study confirmed their mounting suspicions: Long-term exposure to neonicotinoids impairs bees’ ability to prepare for and survive winter in their hives.
Well before this definitive study was published, the scientific community had provided a good deal of evidence implicating neonicotinoids as the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder. Their research convinced the European Union to ban the use of neonicotinoids across all of its member states in 2013. Unfortunately, the United States has yet to do the same. But this month, a federal appeals court finally sided with environmentalists, blocking the use of a particular neonicotinoid that is proven to be toxic to honeybees.
While this victory is encouraging, many environmentalists, scientists, beekeepers, and policy makers understand that we can’t afford to wait while the U.S. government drags its feet on this issue. In order to preserve and rehabilitate our honeybee populations, beekeepers across the nation have promoted and encouraged beekeeping wherever possible. Perhaps the most unusual partnerships to date are the installations of apiaries on unused airport lands.
Airports require a great deal of land to accommodate takeoff and landing strips, buildings, airplanes and associated vehicles, and buffer land between planes and nearby communities. For public safety, the unused land around airstrips and within the buffer space must not be developed for human use. But these spaces can be reclaimed for flora and fauna, including honeybees.
In 2011, Chicago O’Hare Airport became the first American airport to host an apiary. The idea came from Germany, where scientists use airport apiaries to measure environmental pollution from honey samples. But since those measurements cannot replace man-made monitoring equipment, Chicago decided to incorporate airport apiaries into its sustainability initiatives, which include an aeroponic garden, green roofs, construction recycling, and wetland restoration.
For Chicago, airport apiaries serve many purposes. The first is to rehabilitate unused airport lands for wildlife, a task for which bees are uniquely suited: At their size, bees pose no danger to air traffic, nor do the small birds attracted by the fields of wildflowers they maintain.
A second task of airport apiaries is to raise worker bees and queens who are adapted to the local climate’s weather patterns and diseases. Furthermore, these bees are not raised on pesticide-soaked plants, rendering them a far healthier population to distribute to local beekeepers.
Airports in Seattle and St. Louis have since followed suit. But Chicago’s program includes another ambitious component: providing much-needed job training for ex-convicts. The apiaries are run in a partnership by the City’s Department of Family Support Services and the non-profit North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN). NLEN helps Chicago residents find jobs after incarceration, when many employers are reluctant to hire them.
At O’Hare, NLEN’s apiary caretakers process and sell thousands of pounds of honey on site. They distribute it at O’Hare’s Farmer’s Market and for a line of skincare products through the business Sweet Beginnings, which predominantly hires individuals transitioning from prison back into the community. While developing his job skills, NLEN apiary trainee Thad Smith discovered a passion for beekeeping; he went on to co-found the business Westside Bee Boyz, which is now contracted to manage Sweet Beginnings’ airport hives.
Airport beekeeping is transforming the lives and health of bees, habitats, and entire communities. The world is aware of the dangers caused by an absence of bees, but who could have predicted such wonderful new outcomes from bringing bees back in?