By Tanya Mohn, The New York Times, 6/28/2010
Airports in Germany have come up with an unusual approach to monitoring air quality. The Düsseldorf International Airport and seven other airports are using bees as “biodetectives,” their honey regularly tested for toxins.
“Air quality at and around the airport is excellent,” said Peter Nengelken, the airport’s community liaison. The first batch of this year’s harvested honey from some 200,000 bees was tested in early June, he said, and indicated that toxins were far below official limits, consistent with results since 2006 when the airport began working with bees.
Beekeepers from the local neighborhood club keep the bees. The honey, “Düsseldorf Natural,” is bottled and given away as gifts.
Biomonitoring, or the use of living organisms to test environmental health, does not replace traditional monitoring, said Martin Bunkowski, an environmental engineer for the Association of German Airports. But “it’s a very clear message for the public because it is easy to understand,” he added.
Volker Liebig, a chemist for Orga Lab, who analyzes honey samples twice a year for the Düsseldorf and six other German airports, said results showed the absence of substances that the lab tested for, like certain hydrocarbons and heavy metals, and the honey “was comparable to honey produced in areas without any industrial activity.” A much larger data sampling over more time is needed for a definitive conclusion, he said, but preliminary results are promising.
Could bees be modern-day sentinels like the canaries once used as warning signals of toxic gases in coal mines?
Assessing environmental health using bees as “terrestrial bioindicators“ is a fairly new undertaking, said Jamie Ellis, assistant professor of entomology at the Honey Bee Research and Extension Laboratory, University of Florida in Gainesville. “We all believe it can be done, but translating the results into real-world solutions or answers may be a little premature.” Still, similar work with insects to gauge water quality has long been successful…