Bees and jetliners chart a parallel course

As Bob Redmond points out, a queen bee he’s just found he has to raise his voice. A British Airways 777 is about to land on top of him. Or so it would seem.

Actually, the steady stream of jets landing on Sea-Tac Airport’s main runway are 200 yards to the east.

The beehive that Redmond is investigating is one of the 25 on the airport’s property. Called Flight Path, the hives are a joint venture between The Port of Seattle and The Common Acre, a nonprofit that engages the general public with agriculture. Redmond is the director and lead beekeeper at The Common Acre.

Flight Path is intended to develop hardier varieties of European honeybees and in turn improve habitat for native pollinators such as bumblebees — putting Sea-Tac’s 1,500 acres of wild lands to better use.

While honeybees are not native to North America, they are the only insect commercially managed on a large scale for food production. And they are vital to it — pollinating the majority of food consumed in the U.S.

“They are a poster child for pollinators. They are really fascinating and sexy. And they are the work horse of our food system,” Redmond said. Like a jetliner carrying cargo, bees ferry nectar and pollen from source to hive, he pointed out.

On this visit to the hives, Redmond checked for brood (baby bees) and honey.

While native pollinators can’t be managed as directly as honeybees, they are just as important, Redmond said. “They are really good at preserving our native plants and habitats,” he said. And, their benefit to agriculture is just beginning to be appreciated.

Studies have shown that a farm that keeps habitat for native pollinators is more productive than one that doesn’t, Redmond said.

The airport’s undeveloped land is used for safety zones and noise mitigation. Mostly untouched, they have become defacto nature preserves. But, over the years, much of the land was invaded by non-native plant species which can crowd out natives.

Part of the airport’s larger plan is to replace invasive plants with native plants — about 200 acres have already been planted — and install nesting habitat for native pollinators, said Steve Osmek, the airport’s wildlife biologist.

The 9-hole Tyee Golf Course, just south of the airport, will be permanently closed on Oct. 27 and planted with flowering shrubs and small trees. It’s part of the airport’s ongoing efforts to make it and the surrounding area less attractive to wildlife that are hazardous to planes.

“We want to do more than let it go to noxious weeds and eliminate wildlife. What animals can we co-exist with? What can we do to benefit these species in need?” Osmek said. While the airport wants to discourage large birds such as gulls, geese and raptors, they want to encourage smaller ones such as songbirds.

The 25 hives that Redmond oversees are in three locations on the airport’s property. Surrounded by runways and urban development they live in an oasis of sorts. The habitat also provides an opportunity to study them. The Common Acre is gathering data on the different types of pollinators on the airport’s grounds and what they feed on.

Aside from a honey harvest, the hives are used to breed new queen bees. For the past two years, Redmond has been able to supply local beekeepers with queens.

The queen, which lays all the eggs in a bee colony, sometimes needs be replaced when she grows old. Also, many of the queens in use in the Northwest come from California and are acclimated to milder weather or are just of inferior quality.

To increase public awareness of the importance of pollinators, The Common Acre opened an art and educational exhibit in the exit to concourse B at Sea-Tac in June. It includes the work of 24 Northwest artists working in a variety of media. It will run through December.