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At O'Hare Airport, Unused Land Is Going to the Bees

A new initiative at O'Hare airport fills unused land with beehives and gives felons a second chance.

That buzzing sound you hear at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport could be a jet taking off. Or maybe it's coming from the 1.5 million bees that call the airport home. In May, the Chicago Department of Aviation partnered with a community group to start a 2,400 square foot apiary on-site. Now 23 beehives are up and running and are scheduled to yield 575 pounds of honey this year.


The project offers a creative, sustainable, and productive way to use otherwise wasted open space at mega-airports like O'Hare. The bees' new home on the east side of the airport campus had long stood vacant, so it was a natural spot for the bee program to begin. And if that's not enough benefit, the beehives provide employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated adults (similar to other projects that teach prisoners beekeeping).

Sweet Beginnings, the offshoot of the local economic development agency that's managing the project, trains felons in the art of beekeeping and the process of making honey, candles, and lotions, which are sold under the brand Beeline. O'Hare's shops intend to start selling the hyper-local honey products soon. “It is the perfect example of a green business operating and growing in Chicago, while also providing opportunities to those who need a second chance,” said former Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley.

The "airport beekeeping movement" has been growing in Germany since 1999, when scientists realized honeybees could be helpful for monitoring air quality, but O'Hare is the first American airport to get an apiary. In a way, it's a return to the airport's agricultural roots: O'Hare was founded on a former apple orchard, which lives on in the three letter airport code "ORD."

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