Bees are crucial for crop pollination and honey production but now scientists have recruited the pollinators for pollution monitoring.
Scientists at the Natural History Museum are capitalising on the fact that pretty much everything will stick to a bee’s body and wings. It is why they are so vital for pollination because so much static electricity builds up in their fur that it draws in tiny particles.
Researchers realised that the build-up of industrial pollution on bees can be used to monitor air quality.
The insects can fly up to 2.5km a day around their hives, so they can provide a much more accurate sample of particulate matter in an area than ground-based observations.
The researchers studied bees in an industrial area of Sardinia where dozens of lead-zinc mines operated until recent times, leaving thousands of tonnes of finely ground ore materials exposed.
Industrial and mining activity releases a range of fine particles that can remain suspended in the atmosphere; some of these can be particularly harmful to humans.
Mineralogist Dr Christian Mavris, one of the lead authors of the study, said: “Using our novel method, bees dynamically sample airborne particulate matter.
“This allowed us to discern between different emission sources. Stationary observation stations allow for more accurate estimates of particle quantities, but they cannot match our new method’s ability to determine emission sources.”
The Sardinian samples showed that The bees’ head, wings and legs were coated with particulate matter of industrial and mining origins, accumulated during their adult life span of about six weeks.
The researchers were able to track the origin of these particles, including emission sources several kilometres from the beehives.
Their findings suggest that the exposure of humans living in the area to post-mining and industrial pollutants could be far higher than previously thought.
Dr Mavris believes that bees could be used in the British countryside to monitor former industrial areas such as old coal and lead mines.
“There are lots of applications for this kind of bee monitoring,” he said. “We often have an assumption that air in the countryside is very good but that is probably not a precise estimate.
“If we wanted to test an area we could take some honeybees and put some hives there and then check the level of particles that stick to them. It could give us a good indication of how air quality was changing over time.
“The Sardinian experiments have shown us that in old mines, even when the ore dumps had been covered over by soil, the particles were still getting into the air.
“It could help narrow down sources of air pollution.”
The research was published in the journal PLoS One.