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Bee Detectives

SOLVIN ZANKL/NPL/MINDEN PICTURES

Insects are helping scientists collect evidence of pollution in cities. “Bees and their honey can help us monitor the health of the environment,” says Kate Smith, a geochemistry Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

Metal manufacturing and other industries release dust containing pollutants, like lead (Pb), into the air. This element is a dangerous neurotoxin, which affects brain development. The dust can settle onto plants. These contaminants then stick to bees’ fuzzy bodies when they visit flowers to collect pollen and nectar to eat. The insects carry the particles back to their hives, where tiny amounts—too small to harm humans—end up in their honey.

Smith and her colleagues analyzed honey from beehives around Vancouver. They found that honey from different parts of the city contained different isotopes, or forms, of lead. Matching this chemical fingerprint to potential pollution sources could help authorities track the origin of the airborne toxin.

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