At German airports, bees are the canaries

Girl in bee costume. Field Museum


(Courtesy Field Museum, via Flickr Creative Commons)

According to a story by Tanya Mohn in the New York Times, Düsseldorf International Airport and seven other airports in Germany are using bees as ‘biodetectives.’  Clues about the air quality around each airport show up in the honey.

“The first batch of this year’s harvested honey from some 200,000 bees was tested in early June…and indicated that toxins were far below official limits…”

That’s good news of course, but here’s my favorite part of the story:

Beekeepers from the local neighborhood club keep the bees. The honey, “Düsseldorf Natural,” is bottled and given away as gifts.

The article describes what sort of substances the honey was tested for (“certain hydrocarbons and heavy metals”) and offers intriguing information about the pros, cons and reliability of biomonitoring – the use of living organisms to test environmental health:

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.

You can read the full article here. And you can be sure I’m busy as one of those airport bees trying to figure out how to get some of that Dusseldorf honey for Souvenir Sunday.