A Honey Of A Tale About Bees And The FAA

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)

Originally published on the FAA’s internal website and at Medium
By K. Daniel Glover

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.

This FAA building is portrayed as the FBI in “Designated Survivor.” (Screenshot: ABC)

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.

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