Bees Can Monitor Air Pollution

Honeybee at a flower (photo in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Honeybee at a flower (photo in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

26 August 2015

We all know that pollen sticks to bees but did you know that air pollution particles stick, too?  A recent study shows that honey bees can be excellent monitors of local air quality.

Bees have so much static electricity on their bodies that airborne particles stick to their heads, wings and legs as they fly. This includes airborne pollen, salt spray from the sea, soil dust, and industrial pollution.  If you identify the particles, you can identify the pollution source and that’s important if you need to clean it up.

In this 2015 study, Honey Bees (Apis mellifera, L.) as Active Samplers of Airborne Particulate Matter, scientists placed eleven beehives near Iglesias, Sardinia, a location known for its legacy pollution of exposed tailings piles from lead-zinc mines in the 19th century.  There are also industries five miles away at the coast: an aluminum smelter, a lead-zinc smelter, and coal-fired and oil-fired power plants.  At a site like this how can you know where the particles comes from?

Scientists captured 10 honey bees at a control site in rural Italy and 20 bees at the Sardinian site, then analyzed the particulate found on their bodies.  The control bees carried natural particles including dust from the local soil.  The Sardinian bees carried sea salt (good) as well as industrial pollution and dust from the lead-zinc mine tailings (bad).

Thanks to the honey bees, the people of Iglesias know more about their air quality.  Honey bees could monitor our quality, too.

Read more in the original paper here at PLOS ONE.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

4 thoughts on “Bees Can Monitor Air Pollution

  1. That makes me wonder if this is also a key factor to CCD Colony Collapse Disorder? In NW Pennsylvania, many beekeepers are convinced that when farmers plant corn, the chemicals on the seed migrates on the wind, affecting bees in the corn field’s area? Any thoughts?

  2. That’s really interesting, Kate! And that’s a great web site talking about invertebrate environmental research. I firmly believe that pesticides are causing all types of problems with our environment, including human health problems. I’m sure our neighbors in Upper St. Clair (before we moved to the country) hated us because we refused to treat our lawn.

    Mary Ann

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