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When I started out today, I had planned on writing a peppy post on the use of bees to monitor pollution around European airports. It’s an upbeat story that pops up from time to time in the news. This week, it was Vaclav Havel Airport in Prague. Over the past couple of years, several airports in Germany have implemented beehives as a part of air-quality controls. The idea is that pollutants will show up in the honey, and that clean honey means clean air.

Honey produced by bees at the Vaclav Havel Airport in Prague is checked for its quality and presence of pollutants in the environment. Caption and credit: REUTERS/David W Cerny

Honey produced by bees at the Vaclav Havel Airport in Prague is checked for its quality and presence of pollutants in the environment.
Caption and credit: REUTERS/David W Cerny

It’s a pleasant thought, the use of bees to check on air, and what could be sweeter than honey?

So, as I checked for a few back-up articles or papers, I came across a 1990 Associated Press article, republished in the Seattle Times – Honeybees May Help To Monitor Pollution.

In the article, former University of Montana professor Jerry Bromenshenk describes bees as “flying electrostatic dust mops.” Along with nectar and water, the bee’s surface electrical charges and body hair also pick up everything from heavy metal particles to toxic pollutants.

Unfortunately, the article also states that “honey is the least useful of all beehive products for monitoring pollution. Bromenshenk (said) contaminants are rarely detected in honey or found only in the parts per trillion range.”

So how are bees best utilized as pollution monitors?

By grinding up their bodies and testing the resultant material.

Okay, so now the story is a little less sweet.

Bees in a field near my house. Photo: PK Read

Bees in a field near my house.
Photo: PK Read

A 2011 article in PRI’s The World quotes a bee expert involved with biomonitoring at Frankfurt Airport as saying that since honey samples taken from beehives stationed the airport, a busy freeway and a rural forest all showed the same low level of pollutants, maybe bees have a built-in detoxification process that renders the honey rather useless as a biomonitoring tool – although it would make bees an even more interesting study subject in terms of pollutant processing.

So why the cute stories of beekeepers on runways?

I admit that I don’t know much about bees or the very latest in bee research. I’ve written about them in various contexts on this blog, but this biomonitoring is new territory for me.

Another few minutes of fact-checking revealed that Bromenshenk himself, a long-time expert and proponent of bee and bee health, has come under fire for receiving funding from Bayer Crop Science, one of the main producers of the neonicotinoid neurotoxin that was banned this year in the European Union. But does that discredit his work done in the 30 years before he received that funding?

Image: Honeymark

Image: Honeymark

This all just reminded me that when it comes to environmental issues and how they are discussed in the media, things are rarely as straightforward as they seem. And while the truth might be hidden somewhere in there, we can always find stories to support our favorite arguments.

I know a good public relations move when I see it.

But now I want to know: Is the captivating notion of bee biomonitoring to validate the clean air around airports any more than a charming story meant to soothe worried minds?

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