A honey bee in a flower is shown in a handout photo. A new study from the University of British Columbia says honey from urban honey bees can show how clean a city is and help pinpoint the sources of environmental pollutants such as lead. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-University of British Columbia)

A honey bee in a flower is shown in a handout photo. A new study from the University of British Columbia says honey from urban honey bees can show how clean a city is and help pinpoint the sources of environmental pollutants such as lead. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-University of British Columbia)

UBC study shows honey bees can help monitor pollution in cities

Scientists analyzed beehives in high density urban areas to those off on Galiano Island

Honey from urban honey bees can help pinpoint the sources of environmental pollutants such as lead, a new study from the University of British Columbia suggests.

Scientists from the university’s Pacific Centre for Isotopic and Geochemical Research analyzed honey from urban beehives in six Metro Vancouver neighbourhoods where they tested for lead, zinc, copper and other elements.

“They fly through the air and drink water and land on surfaces in addition to foraging the way we think they forge for pollen and nectar,” said Kate E. Smith, lead author of the study and a PhD student at the university. ”So while they are interacting with all parts of the environment they are also passively collecting dust and particulates.”

The researchers found the concentration of elements increased closer to areas with heavy traffic, higher urban density and industrial activity such as shipping ports.

READ MORE: Honeybee farmers hope science can allow hives to thrive

Scientists analyzed beehives from rooftops in high density urban areas to those off on Galiano Island, she said.

“So we have hives surrounded by all different types of land use,” Smith said.

They found that honey from areas downtown, higher urban density or heavier concentration of industrial activity had elevated concentrations of certain trace elements that are indicative of human activity such as zinc, titanium, copper or lead.

The good news is that the chemical composition of honey in Vancouver reflects its environment and is extremely clean, Smith said.

“Vancouver is still quite a clean city. It’s not bad. Just typical of a city.”

Metro Vancouver honey is well below the worldwide average for heavy metals such as lead, and an adult would have to consume more than 600 grams — two cups — of honey every day to exceed tolerable levels, Smith said.

Exposure to lead remains a key human health concern especially for children, she said.

Researchers used a technique called isotopic fingerprinting, she said, noting that lead has four isotopes, which are variants of a particular chemical element.

Analyzing these isotopes is similar to determining a fingerprint because it gives scientists information about the source of the lead, she said.

Lead that comes from rocks, the Garibaldi volcanic belt or sediment from the Fraser River is different from that which comes from downtown because of human activity, Smith said.

“The unique aspect of this study is the use of lead isotopes to help fingerprint the potential sources of lead in environments with different types of land use,” Smith said. “This is the first study to do this with honey in North America.”

The concentration of elements increased closer to downtown Vancouver, and is largely from manmade sources, she said.

The four years worth of data researchers have can serve as a baseline for future studies, she noted.

“Cities are a very dynamic environment. We have issues and challenges like climate change and all of these factors will contribute to how the landscape of the city changes,” she said. “And we can continue to monitor this by monitoring honey from honeybees.”

Honey bees are biomonitors of the environment because the honey gives quantitative information about the environment as opposed to just qualitative information, Smith said.

“An example of qualitative information would be the canary in the coal mine but here we are getting quantitative data that tells us about the environment immediately surrounding the hive,” she said.

“I think it’s mostly useful in that it would supplement those more traditional methods of environmental sampling like air and top soil.”

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Food trucks will be allowed to operate in several Sooke parks beginning May 1. (Black Press Media file photo)
Sooke’s food truck pilot project under scrutiny

Councillor questions impact food trucks will have on nearby restaurants

A walk for autism awareness. (Black Press Media file photo)
COLUMN: Autism acceptance, not autism awareness

Elizabeth Sparling is the mother of a 24-year-old son with Autism Spectrum Disorder

A vehicle that was driven through the wall of a parkade at Uptown Shopping Centre and into the nearby Walmart on April 9 was removed through another hole in the wall later that night. (Photo via Saanich Police Department and Ayush Kakkar)
PHOTOS: Vehicle driven into Saanich Walmart removed after two trapped workers rescued

Crews cut new hole in parkade wall to remove vehicle safely

Tons of bottles were donated during bottle drives in Sooke and Langford on March 27. The funds raised from the drives will help a local family stay with their daughter during her leukemia treatments in Vancouver. (Photos: Glendora Scarfone)
Sooke, Langford bottle drives help cover family’s costs of staying with daughter during cancer treatments

More than $11,900 raised to help Shae Hanilton’s family stay with her in Vancouver

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan describe vaccine rollout at the legislature, March 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
1,262 more COVID-19 infections in B.C. Friday, 9,574 active cases

Province’s mass vaccination reaches one million people

Organ donation form from BC Transplant. (BC Transplant)
POLL: Have you registered as an organ donor?

They number 1.5 million strong and growing. But their numbers still fall… Continue reading

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website victoriacrimestoppers.ca for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of April 6

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod, seen here on April 9, 2021 with four-year-old sister Elena and mom Vanessa, was born with limb differences. The family, including husband/dad Sean McLeod, is looking for a family puppy that also has a limb difference. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. family looking for puppy with limb difference, just like 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy McLeod born as bilateral amputee, now her family wants to find ‘companion’ puppy for her

Four members with Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans were out at Cultus Lake on March 28 and 29 hauling trash out of the waters. (Henry Wang)
PHOTOS: Out-of-town divers remove 100s of pounds of trash from Cultus Lake

Members of Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans hauled out 470 pounds of trash over two days

As of Saturday, April 10, people born in 1961 are the latest to be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. (Black Press files)
B.C. residents age 60+ can now register to get their COVID-19 vaccine

Vaccine registration is now open to people born in 1961 or earlier

A new saline gargle test, made in B.C., will soon be replacing COVID-19 nasal swab tests for kids. (PHSA screenshot)
Take-home COVID-19 tests available for some B.C. students who fall ill at school

BC Children’s Hospital plans to provide 1,200 kits to Vancouver district schools this April

Ruming Jiang and his dog Chiu Chiu are doing fine following a brush with hypothermia that saw several people work together to get them out of the Fraser River near Langley’s Derby Reach Park on March 25, 2021 (Special to the Advance Times)
Man finds men who rescued him from drowning in B.C.’s Fraser River

A grateful Ruming Jiang says he will thank them again, this time in person when the pandemic ends

Tyson Ginter, 7, is proud of his latest Hot Wheels he recently received by Quesnel RCMP Const. Matt Joyce. (Photo submitted)
B.C. Mountie handing out toy cars to light up children’s faces

‘A lot of times it will be the only interaction they have with the police,’ says Const. Matt Joyce

Most Read