Airport slates 50 acres to Flight Path project

airport beeksTwo years ago, we approached Sea-Tac airport — the nation’s 15th busiest airport — about putting some beehives on their property. And doing an art exhibit inside the terminal. And turning some of the scrub land currently ridden with invasive weeds into wildflowers. And installing nesting habitat for native pollinators.

Why? If we raise local, disease-resistant and pesticide-free bees and distribute them to the local beekeepers, that will reduce our regional dependence on genetically-compromised bees from elsewhere. If we use airport property, we have much better control over the bees’ breeding ground, and can raise better bees.

If we inspire and educate people about pollinators and the need for locally-grown food, that will help the local food system grow. If we rehabilitate land right here in the city, that will reduce our dependence on fossil fuel and support our local economies. If we build habitat to support native pollinators, that will help them thrive and create ecological diversity.

The airport said: “yes!”

Flight Path - rectangle v3It took all of the two years to get to this point, and a staggering amount of work by us, our colleagues at The Common Acre (the non-profit that eventually took over sponsorship of the program) and the Port of Seattle (which runs Sea-Tac). We called the project “Flight Path: The Art+Science of Bees.” And this is just the bee-ginning.

Already we’ve installed 16 honey bee hives on the property and are beginning our queen-rearing operation. The project launch was covered by dozens of news outlets (including this one), including some comprehensive, educational articles in Crosscut Media and Yes! Magazine. A few weeks ago, in the wake of intensive publicity around our launch, the St. Louis airport announced–hey!–they’re going to put bees on their land too. And then the Port told the Flight Path team they want to dedicate 50 acres to pollinator habitat; we’re working with them to begin mulching and planting to start this fall, and install habitats for bumblebees, mason bees, and other native bees in the spring.

Site of the Flight Path art exhibit (for January 2014)

Site of the Flight Path art exhibit (for January 2014)

The Common Acre and airport curators identified an exhibit site and are gathering some of the region’s best artists, including Mandy Greer, David Lasky, Celeste Cooning, and many more.

Our goal is to make this project a model for urban agriculture everywhere: from corporate campuses to colleges and universities to cities in decay, even to vertically-farmed properties. As long as people are living in cities (and the trend only points to more and more urbanization), we need to find ways to produce food in those cities. And food needs pollinators.

“Flight Path” means not just the trajectory of planes or bees — it also means the trajectory of humans. It’s up to us to choose where we go.

We ♥ Mason Bees

Orchard mason bees, also known as blue orchard bees, are prodigious pollinators, native to the Pacific Northwest. Smaller than honey bees, mason bees are solitary bees that don’t generate honey. Having no large stores to defend, they rarely sting. They nest in cracks in wood and other small spaces, and create individual spaces for each bee larva, separated by mud (hence “mason”).

They are dark-colored (hence “blue”) and with a foraging radius of about 300 feet diameter from the nest, they work very well in contained gardens and orchards (hence “orchard”).

Mason bees are under extreme duress just like honey bees, also suffering from loss of habitat, pesticides, new diseases and pests and other stressors. People like Missy Anderson are working to build populations of mason bees in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere.

Keeping mason bees can involve a bunch of work: they don’t require inspections like honey bees, and overall are less labor-intensive: but the cocoons do need to be checked for disease and cleaned, refrigerated overwinter (the bees won’t emerge if the temperature isn’t right, and this guarantees they won’t come out on a warm day in December), and situated properly in the spring.

You want some mason bees for your garden and don’t want to deal with the maintenance (and a bunch of extra stuff in your fridge all winter)? Missy makes it easy: rent the bees! You can rent them direct from her; all you have to do is pick them up, hang the nest of bees, and bring them back at the end of the season. We can also do it for you (costs more than going direct to Missy).

The bees are in the big tube (shown on top). In the spring, the box of nesting spaces (empty paper straws or a block of wood with empty spaces, both shown) is nailed to the house or hung on a tree (something that won’t shift) and the big tube is placed inside. The bees emerge, mate, and then the queens lay eggs in the nesting spaces (one queen per space), sealing each egg with mud and a little pollen. The eggs pupate and become cocoons, staying that way all winter until spring comes around again.