Sweet Commotion PIT's wildlife population includes hundreds of thousands of honeybees, thanks to thriving apiary program

By Natalie Fiorilli

Just south of Runway 28 Left at Pittsburgh International Airport, the sound of planes taking off and landing isn’t the only source of noise. Tucked away near the airport’s fire training facility is one of three apiaries -- home to nearly 4 million buzzing bees.

Certified master bee keeper Steve Repasky and Ben Shertzer, PIT’s wildlife administrator, manage more than 100 bee colonies housed in nine apiaries on airport property.

“We have something special here,” said Repasky. PIT is among the first U.S. airports that have added apiculture, or beekeeping programs in the past several years. Others include Chicago’s O'Hare and Midway, Seattle-Tacoma, Indianapolis and St. Louis Lambert. The first airport apiary originated in Hamburg, Germany.

Steve Repasky, a certified master bee keeper, partners with the airport to manage more than 100 bee colonies housed in three apiaries on PIT's property. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

Why the airport?

With large amounts of unused land, airports are excellent sanctuaries for a declining honeybee population, which has been threatened by stresses including exposure to pesticides, parasites and poor nutrition.

Honeybees pollinate 80 percent of flowering crops -- about one-third of all consumed food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We need bees for everyday life,” said Shertzer, who is responsible for managing all wildlife activities on PIT’s 8,800 acres.

But there’s another reason: Bee swarms can disrupt airport operations. Pittsburgh International made national headlines in 2012 when a large swarm on a Delta aircraft wing caused a flight delay. Afterward, airport leaders gave the go-ahead on the airport apiary. In exchange, the airport gets free services from Repasky in helping to prevent and remove swarms. The airfield is lined with swarm traps that are regularly monitored.

“It saves the airport money,” Shertzer said. “We’re catching the bees before they get to the airfield. If they do make it to the airfield, we bring him in immediately.”

Repasky works to remove a swarm on airport property in September 2018. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

The apiary program has been closely monitored by both Repasky and Shertzer, along with a USDA biologist. Since its start, Pittsburgh International has seen a reduction in bee swarms on the airfield.

Other airports utilize beekeeping as an opportunity to educate the community on sustainability and the environment, explained Robert Thomson, who helps lead the apiary program at Indianapolis International Airport.

“The community now has a location to place colonies and learn beekeeping,” Thomson said, adding that the airport’s environmental habitat is also directly benefited by the pollinators.

A sign at one of the airport's nine apiaries warns visitors that honey bees will sting to defend their hives. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

Maintaining the airport apiaries is a year-round activity and can demand 10-hour shifts, with Repasky visiting the hives up three times per week, and fewer visits during the winter when the bees are dormant. In addition to producing honey, the PIT apiaries are used for raising queen bees to be sold to other bee keepers, and collecting other products of the hive, including pollen.

The honey produced at PIT is then sold by Repasky’s Urban Beekeeping Operation, Meadow Sweet Apiaries, at the Sewickley Farmers Market held on Saturdays between April and October.

“Any money that is made goes back into the bees,” said Repasky, noting that beekeeping is more of a self-sustaining hobby than a business venture.

Repasky added that the honey has even become a novelty for the airport community. “The honey is produced here and a lot of airport workers are interested in buying it.”

Last updated on September 28, 2020.