MIRABEL, Quebec — A jet taxied down a nearby runway, the roar of its engines merging with the steady buzz of thousands of wings. His head covered with a beekeeper’s veil, Alexandre Beaudoin lifted a frame out of one of five buzzing hives, each housing about 70,000 bees. The bees paid no attention to his intrusion — they were sedated with smoke first — and continued their work.
The hives had been in place only a few months, and Mr. Beaudoin was pleased with the results.
“This frame is full of eggs; this is really nice, really good info,” he said. “It tells me my hive is in really good health.”
To find these hives, you’d have to travel the warren of back roads at Montreal-Mirabel International Airport, pass through a security gate, and go through a parking lot and onto a grass enclosure where a sign announces: Attention Abeilles. Beyond are the airport’s 6,000 acres.
Last year, Aeroports de Montreal, the corporation that runs both of the city’s airports, Mirabel and Montreal-Trudeau International, approached Miel Montreal, a beekeeping cooperative that Mr. Beaudoin helped to found. As part of its environmental initiative — Aeroports de Montreal was the first Canadian airport to sell its carbon credits — it wanted to start a pilot project placing beehives in an empty field. The hives were installed in June.
Mirabel is just the latest in what’s becoming a common undertaking — keeping beehives on airport green space. For airports, beehives can be an easy way to flaunt green credentials while putting space to work in fields that legally cannot be built on. And bees are endearing in a way carbon credits, cardboard recycling and composting are not.
The first was Hamburg Airport in Germany in 1999. Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Dresden, Hannover, Leipzig/Halle, Nuremberg and Munich followed. Since then, Malmo Airport in Sweden, Copenhagen, Chicago’s O’Hare, Seattle-Tacoma International and Lambert-St. Louis International have all welcomed beehives.
The relationship is a symbiotic one: Urban beekeepers need more space, and airports have space to spare. Bees do well in urban environments where there are people to manage the hives, diversity of flowers and no agricultural pesticides.
When the Chicago Department of Aviation wanted to expand O’Hare’s green initiative — the airport was already composting and keeping a grazing herd of rescued animals — its commissioner, Rosemarie Andolino, approached Brenda Palms Barber, the founder and chief executive of Sweet Beginnings, a nonprofit group that provides job training to men and women recently released from prison. Ms. Palms Barber, looking to expand (the group has 131 hives around Chicago), requested room for 25 at O’Hare.
It now has 75, making it the largest airport apiary project in the world.
Copenhagen Airport’s plans to become a major Scandinavian hub turned into an opportunity for the city’s bees. It bought a large plot of land to build on, but a muddy pond in one corner of the lot is home to the protected European green toad, according to Oliver Maxwell, director of the City Bee Association in Copenhagen.
“The nature people came down and said, ‘There’s absolutely no way you’re building on this muddy pond,’ ” Mr. Maxwell said. “So they were holding this piece of land for the last few years wondering what to do with it, and now it’s overgrown and actually this beautiful meadow with wildflowers.”
There are now 15 hives on the site, installed and tended by Mr. Maxwell’s group, and some of the honey is sold in the airport’s gift shops.
At European airports, the focus is often on using bee products, like pollen and honey, as biomarkers to detect pollutants. Malmo Airport began testing honey and beeswax from its hives in 2009. The results indicate that levels of heavy metals, volatile organic hydrocarbons and polyaromatic hydrocarbons are well below European Union limits, and have remained consistent from year to year. “The environment near the airport is not so bad as people thought,” said Maria Bengtsson, the airport’s environmental manager.
For nearly a decade, scientists have been alarmed by steep drops in honeybee populations. Annual losses of around 30 percent, on average, have been attributed to colony collapse disorder and other pressures, including diseases, pesticides, extreme weather and habitat loss. The toll appeared to ease slightly last year, though researchers cautioned that one year hardly indicated a trend.
While airport hives will have only a limited role in propping up bee populations, Elina Lastro Niño, an apiculturist at the University of California, Davis, said that as long as there was no spraying of pesticides, airports could make great environments for honeybees, and could help educate the public.
“If you have an airport where you’re selling honey that comes from the airport itself,” Dr. Niño said, travelers are likely to become “more aware of issues with honey.”
There’s little operational concern about bees interacting with aircraft: If bee and jet meet, the bee will lose. But there have been recent swarming incidents, a natural occurrence when a second queen leaves the hive in search of a new home and around half the hive’s bees follow.
A swarm at O’Hare in July most likely involved wild bees, Ms. Palms Barber said: The airport’s gates are over three miles from the Sweet Beginnings hives, well outside the bees’ normal foraging range. The swarming bees were removed by Sweet Beginnings’ head beekeeper, John Hansen, with a special vacuum. Ms. Andolino said there were occasional swarms before the hives were installed.
Christiane Beaulieu, the Montreal airport company’s vice president of public affairs and communication, said that if the bees did well in this first year at Mirabel, the project would be expanded to the busier Trudeau International.
But for Mr. Beaudoin, honey remains a precious commodity. “In the whole life of one bee, it’s only going to produce one-eighth of a teaspoon,” he says. “When you have that in mind, try putting two soup spoons on your toast in the morning.”