Hundreds of thousands of honeybees soon will take flight near the newest runway at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.
If only the same could be said for commercial jets.
The St. Louis Airport Authority approved a three-year lease with Robins Apiaries to keep bee hives on a 400-square-foot patch of land north of the third parallel runway, the underused landing strip that opened in 2006. The airport will collect $75 a year in rent.
Beekeeper Jim Robins, 76, said he was drawn to the airport location because of the plentiful supply of white dutch clover blooming near the runways and in what used to be Freebourn Park. There also aren’t any pesticides that could prove dangerous to bees, he said.
“I know the airport’s good because I’ve had bees next to the airport for a long time,” Robins said while tending to some of his hives last week in Maryland Heights.
Bees can cover about 5,000 acres of land, flying 1½ miles in any direction to retrieve nectar, Robins said. This time of year, the bees are nearing the end of their gathering time.
Robins has 68 years of experience in beekeeping, learning the craft from his father. His son is also a beekeeper. He has kept bees in 11 states. At various times, he bought out the largest beekeepers in Indiana, Illinois “and a bunch of states.”
Now living in St. Charles, Robins said he has “actually been cutting back.” He currently has about 30 locations where he keeps bees in the St. Louis metropolitan area, but also maintains hives outside the area.
Still, Robins’ experience helps him size up the best spots for his hives. The hives will be on a patch of land behind barricades declaring the property off limits to the public. The airport property is outside the airfield security fence.
The apiary will be north of the $1 billion runway conceived when Lambert was still a bustling hub airport. Hub carrier Trans World Airlines ultimately filed for bankruptcy, and its successor, American Airlines, has steadily reduced its flight schedules.
Lambert logged 181,315 commercial operations in 2012, compared with 484,288 in 1997, according to the airport’s website.
Bridgeton Mayor Conrad Bowers, one of the most vocal opponents of the runway addition that resulted in numerous land buyouts, said last week that he was not made aware of the plan to permit beekeeping on the former park property.
Lambert Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge said the beekeeping contract would keep with the city’s overall sustainability plan. All departments are encouraged to look at every opportunity, she said. This idea for beekeeping at Lambert came through Mayor Francis Slay’s “Vanguard Cabinet.”
The cabinet is a group of young professionals who advise him and advocate certain policies.
“We looked at it,” Hamm-Niebruegge said. “It was an easy contract for us to draw up.”
At least two other U.S. airports — Chicago’s O’Hare International and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport — have significant bee operations on pieces of vacant land. Chicago became home to an apiary a few years ago. Seattle-Tacoma just recently followed suit.
Robins added that bees are on the grounds of Buckingham Palace and the White House.
St. Louis County Aviation Director John Bales, who sits on the St. Louis airport commission, asked whether bees would attract birds. Bird strikes have been an ongoing problem at some U.S. airports.
Robins said that birds don’t flock to bee hives and added that “jet engines digest bees real easy,” so they won’t pose a threat to aviation. That would be the case even if the airport were still a bustling hub.
“Honest to God,” he said, “nobody’s even going to know they’re there.”