German Airports Use Bees as Bio-Detectives for Air Pollution

Beekeeper removing hive frame from hive.

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The Düsseldorf International Airport and seven other airports in Germany have decided that bees are the best "bio-detectives" for monitoring local air quality. By regularly testing the honey of hives placed on airport premises, researchers are able to see what toxins are in the air and being captured by the flora and fauna. The gathered pollen collects toxins from planes themselves to the buses, taxis, freight trucks, and other vehicles used at airports. Important testing ensures the air pollution stays under-regulated levels. Bees seem to be perfect for the task.

According to The New York Times, beekeepers from neighborhood clubs care for the bees and harvest the honey. The first round of 2018's honey was tested earlier this month and showed that toxins were well below official limits. The honey was bottled and given away.

While the bees are a handy tool for testing air quality, they aren't a replacement for the more high-tech devices that also monitor pollution levels. They are more of a supplementary testing tool that holds a dual role as public relations assistants.

Bees are a much more tangible way for the public to understand -- and trust -- pollution levels at airports. A meter can show what the air quality is like and spit out numbers, but for the general public, it's easier to agree that pollution is fine if the bees are thriving and the honey coming from the hives is safe and yummy to eat. There is nothing like seeing healthy insects and food to know that pollution is low.

The New York Times reports, "Volker Liebig, a chemist for Orga Lab, who analyzes honey samples twice a year for the Düsseldorf and six other German airports, said results showed the absence of substances that the lab tested for, like certain hydrocarbons and heavy metals, and the honey 'was comparable to honey produced in areas without any industrial activity.' A much larger data sampling over more time is needed for a definitive conclusion, he said, but preliminary results are promising."

While bees are used at airports for air testing, they could be useful in other places as well. If they prove to be accurate monitors of pollution, that could be a great push for getting more rooftop hives from major cities to small towns. Tiny, energy-efficient sensors placed all over urban landscapes are certainly helpful, but bees serve more than just one purpose. They're tiny, energy-efficient sensors that also pollinate plants, produce food, and keep ecosystems chugging away.