Honey bees can detect environmental pollutants
Research shows Apis mellifera to be excellent biomonitors
In their search for food, bees also collect pollutants from the air, soil and water. Accordingly, they have long been the focus of scientific attention as indicators of the extent of environmental pollution. In a recently published review article, an interdisciplinary research team led by environmental health specialist Daniela Haluza from MedUni Vienna's Center for Public Health has investigated how well and in what form these insects can be used to detect harmful substances in the environment. The conclusion of the work published in the journal "Insects": bees are ingenious "environmental detectives", especially for heavy metals.
The systematic literature review by Daniela Haluza's team from the Department of Environmental Health at MedUni Vienna's Center for Public Health, with the participation of the Montanuniversität Leoben, summarises the use of the bee species Apis mellifera (European honey bee) in pollutant monitoring to date. A total of 19 studies, published between 2010 and 2020, were included in the literature review. The majority of the articles focused on the detection of heavy metals in honey bees and hive products such as honey, while four papers focussed on the monitoring of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and particulate matter. "In our analysis, we were able to show that the bee as a whole, far beyond its individual products, is an outstanding indicator of the extent of environmental pollution in a particular region," explains Daniela Haluza.
With the increasing release of harmful substances into the environment, the negative consequences for human health are increasing. Scientists use special detectors known as biomonitors to track down these substances. Honey bees are considered to be particularly accurate biomonitors. However, when it comes to the reliability of pollutant monitoring by these insects, various factors must be taken into account, as Daniela Haluza quotes from the review article: "The informative value of bee products is closely linked to the time of year, weather conditions and foraging activity." In addition, standardised studies are necessary in order to enable a uniform interpretation of the values detected in them from an environmental health perspective.
Despite some limitations, one thing is certain: "The industrious honey bee is an ingenious environmental detective. It has the remarkable ability to collect pollution data over a specific geographical area," summarises Haluza in her latest publication. Accordingly, the use of honey bees as biomonitors represents a promising avenue for continuous pollution monitoring that complements traditional stationary monitoring stations. This approach offers a broader perspective for environmental health and is in line with the One Health concept, which recognises the interconnectedness of environmental, animal and human health.
Mair KS, Irrgeher J, Haluza D. Elucidating the Role of Honey Bees as Biomonitors in Environmental Health Research. Insects. 2023; 14(11):874.
This publication is part of the FWF project "TecEUS - technological-critical elements in urban habitats" (https://teceus.at), grant number: P 33099-N.
Medizinische Universität Wien