A team of researchers at the University of British Columbia has found a way to assess the cleanliness of a city and identify sources of pollution by analyzing the honey produced by urban bees.
The researchers, from UBC’s Pacific Centre for Isotopic and Geochemical Research (PCIGR), tested honey from hives across the Vancouver area, from the downtown core to outlying agricultural areas, for the presence of trace metals. Worker bees fly through the air and land on a variety of surfaces in the process of gathering nectar to make honey, picking up dust and other particulate matter from their surroundings along the way.
“What we found was that certain trace elements, like lead, copper, cadmium, zinc and titanium all had elevated concentrations in honey from areas of greater urban density relative to honey from rural areas around here,” says Kate Smith, lead author of the study, published last month in the journal Nature Sustainability.
The study was made possible by a partnership with Hives for Humanity, a non-profit organization that aims to encourage urban beekeeping. Chief beekeeper Julia Common was often asked about the cleanliness of the honey produced on Vancouver’s downtown eastside, so Dominique Weis, director of the PCIGR, offered to analyze it.
“That collaboration facilitated a bit of a citizen-science project, because there are bee hives all over the city,” says Smith, referring to the more than 17,000 registered hives in the metro Vancouver area. Members of the beekeeping community were invited to contribute honey samples for analysis.