A Honey of a Tale about Bees and the FAA

K. Daniel Glover
Jan 25, 2018 · 7 min read
Actress Amanda Barker (right) played an FAA official on “Designated Survivor.” In her scene, she meets with the White House officials played by Kal Penn (left) and Paulo Costanzo to discuss “the bee guy.” (Screenshot: ABC)

Forget that fantastical story line on ABC’s “Designated Survivor.” Bee buffs and aviation radar experts agree — electromagnetic waves can’t kill entire colonies of honeybees.

Hollywood’s creative minds wrote that theory into the Dec. 6 episode of the conspiratorial, Washington-based drama. The show’s writers debunked the idea by the end of the episode, but considering the lighthearted plot featured an FAA character, FocusFAA decided to make a few calls — to a radar specialist, a bee scientist and two actors in the episode, among others.

They all chuckled at the idea of aircraft surveillance radar disorienting honeybees to the point of starvation. “Unless [the hives] are by some gigantic radar facility sitting across the fence, I wouldn’t worry about it,” said Jerry Bromenshenk, a research scientist who heads the Online Beekeeping Certificate Program at the University of Montana.

The FAA as insect antagonist
For those unfamiliar with the show, “Designated Survivor” is based on the tradition of an official in the line of presidential succession staying at a distant location when the president is at events with other potential successors. As Hollywood’s version of the designated survivor, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Tom Kirkman (played by Kiefer Sutherland) becomes president after a terrorist attack during a presidential speech at the Capitol.

The FAA has had regular, albeit disguised, cameos in the show. The building portrayed as FBI headquarters actually is one of the FAA headquarters buildings — a fact that some viewers have noted on the “Designated Survivor” Facebook page. But the FAA was featured more prominently in the episode dubbed “Three-Letter Day.”

It began with President Kirkman telling members of his staff to research three issues raised in letters to the White House. One of the letters involved a beekeeper in Pennsylvania who believed a new air route surveillance radar, or ARSR, was killing his bee colonies.

“The irony is that I do not like bees,” said Phil Abrams, the actor who played the beekeeper and who still remembers his first sting from a wasp. So to identify with the character’s pain in losing the bees, Abrams imagined losing his dog. “It’s finding that personal connection with the event, not necessarily in a literal manner but how it moves you emotionally.”

He also had to buy into the character’s fringe theory. “When you play a character, you’ve got to believe in what you’re playing, even if you’re a little bit nuts,” Abrams said. “… I had a definite reason why I thought my bees were dying off, so I took action” by writing to the White House.

In Abrams’ first scene, his character met with White House aides Lyor Boone (actor Paulo Costanzo) and Seth Wright (actor Kal Penn, who worked for President Obama). Boone came away from the meeting convinced that the FAA should have responded to the beekeeper’s concerns and scheduled a White House meeting with Karen Slater (actress Amanda Barker), the FAA’s “administrator of the ARSR.”

Barker, a lifelong fan of honey and the bees that make it, researched her role on short notice like anyone else might have done. “My friend Google helped me out a lot,” she said, adding that she quizzed a friend in radio who also is a pilot. “I was worried about all of the jargon and that I’d get it wrong. … He was able to break down the terms a little bit for me.”

Phil Abrams (right) with Penn and Costanzo on set (Photo: Phil Abrams)

Barker lives in Toronto, Canada, where “Designated Survivor” is filmed, and spent the better part of a day shooting her scene from various angles. “She’s a little bit ambushed,” Barker said of her character, who thinks she is at the White House because the president is interested in aviation but quickly learns the meeting is just about “the bee guy.”

“The role was fun because there was a little bit of a comedic bent,” Barker said, adding that she would be happy to reprise the FAA role. “This episode had a lightness that I don’t necessarily associate with the show.”

A randomly ridiculous story line
As it turns out, the beekeeper’s wife sabotaged the bees — a confession the White House elicited by falsely crediting the beekeeper’s wife with convincing the FAA “to redirect its radio waves so that your colonies are no longer affected.”

Bromenshenk joked that a wife with a vendetta is a far more plausible explanation for dying honeybees than an FAA radar. While it’s true that bees perceive the world much differently than people and can detect geomagnetic fields, he said no research has confirmed a cause-and-effect relationship between Colony Collapse Disorder and technology.

The closest that any study came to demonstrating a change in bee behavior from wave-generating equipment involved power lines. In that case, bees sealed gaps in their hives with even more tree resin than usual.

“It was the strangest thing I had ever seen,” Bromenshenk said. “… It was like they were trying to shield themselves from the electrical fields.” But he added that the hives were deliberately placed under the power lines for research purposes, and the lines were lower to the ground than usual. The study also concluded that power lines didn’t pose a threat to bees.

Beehives from a scene in “Designated Survivor” (Photo: Phil Abrams)

Bromenshenk said the “Designated Survivor” plot line may have sprung from a more recent study into the potential impact of mobile phones activated near hives. The study generated significant press coverage, including sensational headlines like “It’s Official — Cell Phones Are Killing Bees” — even though it made no such claim.

“There was really no particular merit to that one,” Bromenshenk said.

FAA electronics engineer Mark Carmouche scoffed at the notion that radar equipment designed to detect aircraft could threaten bees at very low altitudes. He has worked on the ARSR program since 1993. “Designated Survivor” briefly revived interest in the technology.

“I got it from all directions within a couple of days after that [episode aired],” he said. “… It was quite random that they picked that story line.”

Carmouche said most ARSR sites are located on mountaintops or high ground, and the transmitter/receivers are mounted on 75-foot towers. They see close to the ground out to 35–40 miles from the facility, depending on the surrounding geography.

“They do have very-high-power transmitters … but the difference is that the power is spread across a very large beam and a long transmission time,” he said. “A bee is such a small insect that very little of that power is going to affect the biologics of a bee.”

The solid-state transmitters in the latest ARSR models also have much lower peak power than the vacuum tubes in the older models, which generated high-energy pulses. “The amount of power that is in a fixed amount of space that size is very miniscule,” Carmouche said.

Buzzing in perfect harmony
Anecdotal evidence of honeybees thriving in aviation settings complements the scientific case against radar equipment baffling the insects. The best example may be a colony that actually made its home at the site of a long-range radar in Louisiana in 2015.

Electromagnetic waves didn’t appear to hinder the hive in any way, but the presence of the bees affected efforts to upgrade the technology to a common air route surveillance radar, or CARSR. The simple solution would have been to exterminate the “pests”; instead, the program office agreed to fund the relocation of the bees to a local beekeeper’s land.

Abrams and his wife in “Designated Survivor” (actress Beth Littleford) reveal their secrets to each other, including the fact that she conspired against his bees. (Screenshot: ABC)

A similar conflict between bees and FAA employees occurred at Washington Center the following year. Air traffic controller Alan Eldridge came to the bees’ rescue there, working with a friend to move them to a Virginia farm where they maintain some hives.

Eldridge was amused by the bee controversy on “Designated Survivor.” A former certified weather observer in Alaska, he periodically visited radar sites to address disruptions like frogs on lenses. Although he never saw beehives at any sites, the frogs clearly were there because of other insects that thrived in the atmosphere.

The presence of bee yards at airports is another example of insect and tech harmony. The trend started in Germany in 1999 and now includes airports in Chicago, Seattle and St. Louis.

The nonprofit Sweet Beginnings, which employs former convicts to help them transition back into society, had as many as 100 hives at Chicago O’Hare International before the airport’s recent expansion. It still maintains 10–15 hives and has produced more than 100 pounds of honey. Sold inside the airport, the honey earned a blue ribbon at the 2015 Illinois State Fair.

Based on that experience, CEO Robert Miller can’t imagine that exposure to aviation technology has any significant impact on bees. “We’ve been very successful with our hives out at O’Hare,” he said. “We haven’t had any difficulty co-existing.”

This story originally appeared on the FAA’s internal website. It has been reprinted with permission.

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