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Sweet science. Honey used to monitor Lower Mainland environment

Map of Metro Vancouver, featuring locations of the sampled for this study and possible sources of man-made trace elements. (Courtesy UBC)
Summary

Researchers gathered and analyzed honey from urban beehives across six Metro Vancouver neigbourhoods over four years

Levels of some elements were higher in denser urban areas such as downtown Vancouver

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – In science news that has Metro Vancouver buzzing, researchers are using honey to monitor our environment and create an archive of data.

Working in cooperation with Hives for Humanity researchers from UBC’s Pacific Centre for Isotopic and Geochemical Research (PCIGR) gathered and analyzed honey from urban beehives across six Metro Vancouver neigbourhoods over four years.

Bees were a prime candidate because they rarely travel more than a couple kilometres from their hive in their search for pollen.

“Honey is somewhat of a modern day canary in a coal mine,” said Kate Smith, lead author of the study and PhD candidate at PCIGR. “The honey bees fly through the air, they drink water, they land on soil and surfaces, and all the while they’re sort of passively picking up particulate matter in addition to pollen and nectar and as a result, the honey they produce provides a very convenient snapshot of each hive’s immediate surrounding.”

The samples were tested for minuscule levels of lead, zinc, copper, titanium and other elements. The analysis also included looking for the lead isotopic composition which acts like a fingerprint to tell scientists where the lead came from.

What was found was levels of the elements were higher in denser urban areas such as downtown Vancouver and often associated with human activity.

“We find that (the lead in the samples) does not match the local isotopic composition. That is to say it doesn’t match the local geology,” Smith said.

Honey analysis is used around the world and Smith says it gives scientists a great method to monitor changes in hyper-local environments.

“What we hope is that this will serve as a base line and can be used to compare future data to as the city changes,” she said. “We know that human population is growing, there’s rapid urbanization all over the world. What this requires are affective, affordable and accessible tools for environmental monitoring as these changes happen.”

Because honey, if sealed, will not go bad, the samples can be archived and used in future research as well.

She stressed the honey is still very safe to eat. The level of particles in the samples are akin to a single drop in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Scientists have to wear special gear and work in clean rooms to ensure they don’t accidentally contaminate the samples and throw off their data.

“The only reason we can measure these differences is because we have access to really sensitive equipment,” Smith said, adding she’s so confident in the product that she even got to try some of the honey. “Vancouver is very clean as far as the honey is concerned.”