Beekeeper Ingo Fehr, in the background an airplane
© Roman Pawlowski

A passion for bees

  • TEXT MORITZ HERRMANN
  • PHOTOS ROMAN PAWLOWSKI
  • ILLUSTRATION CRISTÓBAL SCHMAL
  • VIDEO SEBASTIAN STÜCKE, ULF MIERS

Over there, the drone of an airplane engine; over here, the buzzing of bees. Ingo Fehr, a beekeeper at Hamburg Airport, regularly feels both pain and acute happiness on the job.

He holds his breath. The honeycomb is wedged tight and will not budge. Sweating slightly, he gives the box a shake and the honeycomb slides out. Better not drop it, that could hurt as he well knows. He’s had stings on his arms, legs, face and even eye – twenty a year. Bees will chase you for hundreds of meters if they are angry. He holds the honeycomb up to the light. It looks good. After only a week, there’s already a thin film of honey visible. The queen is strong, her workers are industrious. Ingo Fehr, beekeeper at Hamburg Airport, says, “Bees inspire fear and respect in many people; I feel only respect for them – I’ve lost my fear.”

Airport beekeeper – it really is a job, and Fehr, 49, has been doing it for 17 years. The airfield is Hamburg’s largest continuous green area, larger even than Ohlsdorf cemetery or the city park. You hear Fehr’s bees before you see them. Buzzzzz. The sound fills the April air, occasionally interspersed with the drone of an airplane. Fehr’s bees live in a meadow on the edge of a patch of woodland, 500 meters from the runway and 200 meters from the weather station. Fehr loves this place. A bird calls from a treetop, sunshine peeps through the branches. It’s as though the beekeeper and I are out in the country somewhere.

Fehr raises his beekeeper’s veil to sample the honey. Delicious! It tastes – he considers for a moment – very flowery, almost nutty, right? Or is that wild chamomile? What he knows for certain is that this will be a good year. The honey is dark. When the first grasses bloom in late April, that’s when the bees emerge from EN the hive. Fehr harvests spring blossom honey around mid-June. The second crop, summer blossom, is ready nearly four weeks later.

Beekeeper Ingo Fehr

This meadow is ideal for bees. There is a variety of blossoms, a pond in the woods and the Tarpenbek stream flows nearby

© Roman Pawlowski
Bees on wood

Honey was considered the food of the gods in ancient Egypt

© Roman Pawlowski

  But the honey is only part of the story. Bees help to monitor the air quality at the airport. The honey is tested for emissions, chemicals and germs at the Institute for Apiculture in Celle. Bees scour their search area and reflect quite precisely the area’s environmental conditions. The honey has always passed the test, says Fehr. Once, the reading for chromium was a little higher than normal, but that was his fault because he had used a chrome spatula to sample the honey. There’s nothing wrong with the air at the airport. Monitoring the honey complements the relevant authorities’ constant air quality tests and his own on-site assessments.

In a clearing, Fehr sets fire to some egg boxes to start the smoker. The smoke dazes the bees, making them sluggish. Fehr chisels free a new honeycomb, sticky with a thick, golden layer of honey. “The bee is a truly amazing creature,” Fehr trills through his veil: hardworking; ideal colony structures; the processes. The hierarchies, with a queen at the top and thousands of helpers at her service. The bees swarm around Fehr’s head, buzzing loudly. He loves beekeeping, an occupation he found through love. He and his wife met in first grade and started going out at 16. Her father, a good, honest railway man with an allotment beside the tracks and a hive in the garden, taught Fehr all about bees. Be a beekeeper heart and soul or not at all – that was the lesson he impressed upon his daughter’s boyfriend, who took it to heart. At Hamburg Airport, while working on his thesis in 1999, the amateur beekeeper was approached by his head of department and authorized to set up his first colony. “The project was born over a cup of coffee in the hallway,” he recalls. “Crazy really, when you see the result.” Eight colonies (200 000 bees) in polystyrene boxes weighted down with bricks. Other airports followed suit and today Dortmund, Bremen, Düsseldorf, Munich and Dresden all have their own beekeepers. Even the airfields in Tel Aviv and Malmö have beehives.

The following video contains no captions. You will find a description on the website.

How to be a beekeeper at Hamburg Airport: See Ingo Fehr in our video

  Fehr remained loyal to his bees, even commuting from Lübeck to look after them. Since 2014, he has been back in Hamburg on the airport payroll. Fehr’s father-in-law is no longer alive, but he was when the project began to take shape, and Fehr regularly organized day passes for him. They would drive over to the hive, and watch the bees and the planes – two men out in the woods and the sunshine, silent and happy.

Whenever Fehr wants to visit his bees, he has to go through security controls. Every eight days, he shows his ID card, walks through the scanner, divests himself of keys and belt, and indulges in a brief chat. Then he climbs into his Opel Zafira and drives along the perimeter road, past the helicopter hangar, the allotments, and the tower, to the bees. “The airport has 160 000 flight movements per year – my bees can do that in a day,” grins Fehr. When he dons his beekeeping gear in the morning, it’s a pure, gleaming white. By the evening, the veil is yellow with pollen.

The bee is a truly amazing creature

Ingo Fehr, airport beekeeper

fits in the trunk – a couple of sponges for sealing the flight hole; a hand brush to clear away the honeycombs that have been removed from the hive, the towel for mopping perspiration, and cigarettes for the break. Fehr, a ring in his ear, a queen bee tattoo on his biceps, and sporting an FC St. Pauli belt buckle, is calmness personified, a crucial requirement in this job.

But now he looks up at the briskly moving clouds. The bees don’t fly in the rain, and in a thunderstorm they are aggressive. “Then, I think twice before opening the box,” says Fehr. Today, the gray sky brightens and he can continue uncovering the honeycombs. “There’s practically nothing here, they’ve been lazy,” he murmurs, holding up a half-empty frame.

Bees on a honeycomb

Maximum volume with minimum use of material: Honeycombs are logistical masterpieces

© Roman Pawlowski
Ingo Fehr even has a bee tattoo

Ingo Fehr’s love of bees is more than skin deep

© Roman Pawlowski
Ingo Fehr at the airport

Ingo Fehr also has a beehive in his garden at home and, at the end of the summer, he compares the two honey harvests

© Roman Pawlowski
Ingo Fehr in his beekeeping veil

Ingo Fehr in his beekeeping veil

© Roman Pawlowski

  Fehr trained as a cook and even worked in a kitchen, but that was long ago. Today, Fehr only cooks at home, and the apiarist in him shines through – honey- crust roast, salad with honey-mustard dressing. Fehr is one of those people who has turned their hobby into a job. Watching the queen bee eat her way out of the hive makes him happy, and he is distraught when a colony doesn’t survive the winter. Although Fehr spends two thirds of his time at his desk doing office work, the hands-on beekeeping is what he really enjoys.

Apiculture at the airport is often a question of math: A bee makes 40 sorties a day, visits around 4000 flowers. It takes three kilos of nectar to produce one kilo of honey, so the bees have to make 150 000 sorties and fly to roughly 15 million flowers. Last year, he harvested 440 jars of honey, which were given away to partners and customers. Not that Fehr’s honey isn’t good enough for the supermarket shelf; it is, in theory at least. It certainly satisfies the demands of the German beekeepers’ association. A lab sample reveals the wealth of vegetation to be found at the airport: linden flower, sunflower and orchard fruit have shown up in the past. Then there’s clover, blackthorn, acacia, sometimes rape, heather, forget-me-not, maple and chestnut, and even Virginia creeper. Although the honey is unique, there’s just too little for commercial sale.

It’s growing late down by the woods beyond the runway and the sun is fast approaching the horizon. I cannot resist one last question: Does he ever secretly take home a jar or two?
Ingo Fehr smiles slowly, saying nothing at first. Then: “I love a good slice of bread and honey.”


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