Several recent discussions across the Internet about bee-collected propolis and pollen have concluded that honey bees are excellent samplers of their environment. This has both good and bad aspects according to one of the pioneers in the field, Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk, retired, University of Montana. Here are his “take home” messages concerning these insects as environmental monitors:
1. Honey bees serve as multi-media samplers that average the concentrations of pollutants over time and throughout large spatial areas. Bees sample contaminants in all forms – gaseous, liquid, particulate – and can detect chemicals in their surroundings at levels often difficult, if not impossible, to detect using more conventional approaches – i.e., instrumentation.
2. Most of the contamination (at least as indicated by the concentrations measured) ends up in the bees themselves and in pollen. Some chemicals concentrate in wax, especially the lipophilic ones. As a consequence, beekeepers should refrain from letting bees collect and consume pollen in industrial areas, near highways, chemical plants, or a local nuclear reactor.
3. Except for tritium or other special elements, levels of contaminants in honey will be the same order of magnitude or lower than those found in bees, pollen, and some wax samples. Even when contaminated, therefore, honey is as good or better than most food products.
4. Propolis, like wax, can contain high levels of contaminants, but levels often change dramatically from one date to the next, much more than in bees or pollen.
5. Given the bees’ affinity to filter contaminants out of the environment and bring them back to the hive, putting untested chemicals into hives (for example, to try to control mites) poses a very serious risk of contamination for the hive and its products.
6. Beekeepers should take the attitude that monitoring environmental contamination by their bees is a valuable new service that they can provide.