By Asher Price – American-Statesman Staff
BAE Systems has donated office space and land to the nonprofit American Honey Bee Protection Agency.
The bee group says sites like the one at BAE Systems help revive bee populations in urban areas.
In a dense bit of East Austin forest, beneath a long abandoned helicopter-blade test pad and a pair of cottonwood trees, hundreds of honeybees are going about their honey-making business.
The land belongs to military contractor BAE Systems — part of the 140 acres on which the company builds components for missiles and other military hardware — and the bees belong to the nonprofit American Honey Bee Protection Agency, which aims to integrate bees into cities and educate the public about their importance as pollinators.
The unusual partnership is part of an effort by U.K.-based BAE to burnish its image as it attracts and retains young talent, according to corporate officials.
“We see younger folks have stronger beliefs, and it’s easy to be on board with conservation — it just inherently sounds good and is well received,” said Steve Ford, the company’s director of electronic systems survivability, targeting and sensing solutions.
A few years ago, the company, which has operations in places as far-flung as Saudi Arabia and Australia, turned to environmental stewardship at its Austin site, which employs roughly 500 people.
It elected to be a corporate sponsor of Texan by Nature, a Laura Bush outfit that promotes the conservation work of businesses — the company donates $10,000 to that nonprofit annually — and began planting Monarch butterfly-friendly milkweed around its premises. It began taking out bits of lawn and seeded the ground with switchgrass and bluestem and wildflowers to promote healthier ecosystems. Employee volunteers set up a sustainability committee and directed the company cafeteria to increase its recycling and composting. The company ended use of a copper algaecide on a retention pond, set up rainwater collection systems, and donated land and office space to the bee protection group.
Company officials say the environmental work dovetails with their motto: “We protect those who protect us.” Among other things, the company develops the flares that fighter planes eject to protect themselves from heat-seeking missiles.
“We rely on pollinators to prove 70 percent of our food crop,” said Dan Wiegrefe, BAE’s Western region operations director for electronic systems. “What’s the point of protecting our country if we have no country to protect?”
Juxtaposing weapons with bees
Inside the walls of the largely windowless buildings at the corporate office park, just east of U.S. 183 and south of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, BAE is assembling circuit cards for the company’s Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System, according to company documents.
“The APKWS rocket redefines precision by hitting the target with pinpoint accuracy and minimal collateral damage — critical for air-to-ground missions when you only have one shot,” the company says on its webpage.
The company touts that “the rocket has achieved over a 93 percent hit rate.”
In June, the U.S. Naval Air System Command announced a $224.3 million order to BAE for 10,175 air-to-ground rockets, which are intended to blow up armored vehicles and bunkers.
Also put together there are parts of the Target Reconnaissance Infrared Geolocating Rangefinder, or TRIGR, a laser targeting device that looks like a set of high-tech binoculars.
“Our TRIGR system gives our deployed war fighters a decisive advantage in locating enemy targets on today’s battlefields,” Bruce Zukauskas, a BAE program manager, said in 2012, when the U.S. Army placed a $23.5 million order for the devices.
The U.S. subsidiary of the British company had sales of roughly $10 billion in 2016; the company’s board chairman is Michael Chertoff, who served as secretary of Homeland Security in the George W. Bush administration — during Chertoff’s tenure, the Homeland Security Department spent billions of dollars on contracts with BAE and other military contractors.
Hundreds of pounds of honey
Outside these facilities, a wildflower field is set to bloom next spring. Bobcats, red-tailed hawks, red foxes and deer make their homes on parts of the property.
The company wanted to promote its environmental work because “it’s part of our culture here in Austin,” company spokesman Anthony DeAngelis said. “Spreading information about the good we all can do is important for us.”
The bee group manages hives on at least 20 properties around Austin and tends to at least 10 permanent hives on BAE Systems property; each hive yields at least 60 pounds of honey a year.
Ten to 20 percent of the honey is left with BAE Systems, which distributes it to employees; the rest is sold by the bee group at grocery stores and can be purchased online through Epic Honey Co.
Pests, pesticide, urban development and parasites are all threats to bees, said Jon Ray, director of operations for the bee group.
The area around BAE Systems is a “huge desert land that bees no longer populate. We’re trying to put them in BAE, on rooftops and in backyards and open up forage paths in urban areas,” Ray said.
Ray said the bee group works with property owners such as BAE to win an agricultural tax exemption on acreage that’s home to the hives.
Ray waxed philosophical about the proximity of the bee cultivation to the assembly of military armaments.
“The way I look at all of those things, no matter what kind of defense system you’re trying to build — whether it’s bees sending out 10 percent of their population to protect the hive or BAE Systems constructing weapons systems — they’re all designed to create a sense of relief in the overall population. They’re looking not for destruction, but for relief to avoid destruction.”