The Bee Biodetectives Using honeybees as biomonitors for air quality—and then selling the honey

Germany and several other countries in Europe have been using honeybees as biomonitors for air quality in airports. Biomonitoring uses living organisms to test environmental health. Bees are exceptional “biodetectives’ because the pollen and nectar they gather is exposed to any toxins in the surrounding environment, which are then captured in the honey. They also provide a sustainable means of pollinating local flora, which would likely die off without targeted pollination by bees.

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Credit: Michael Mueller, FlickrCC

Martin Bunkowski, an environmental engineer for the Association of German Airports, says that bees can cover an area of up to about one square mile. Air quality is significantly affected by the emissions of planes, taxis, buses and cars, and controlling emissions has been an ongoing problem for the industry. The bees aren’t replacements for an airport’s high-tech monitoring tools, but they have a lot of public appeal.

Seven airports in Germany participate in the program, which started in 1999 at Hamburg airport. In Düsseldorf International Airport, around 200,000 bees are cared for by neighborhood clubs and the honey is analyzed twice a year by scientists at Orga Lab. The lab looks for toxins such as hydrocarbons and heavy metals in the honey—toxins that, so far, they haven’t found. After passing inspection by the Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety, the honey is bottled and labeled as “Düsseldorf Natural.”

This year the bees cultivated 200 jars of high-quality honey that the airport gave away as gifts. Bunkowski reports that “examinations in recent years have shown that the honey is, in terms of fitness for human consumption, consistently, absolutely perfect.” It is even comparable to honey produced in areas with no industrial activity, and suggests that airports and other industrial sites are not being used to their full, sweet potential.