Bees as bioindicators: a tool to measure environmental pollution

We know honeybees for their hard work in agriculture and the environment. The work they do ensures a healthy and sustainable world for us all. Bees have been proven to be a great natural bioindicator for pollution. If we listen carefully to what they tell us, we can learn much more about the nature around us and how it suffers. More than a third of the world’s soil is degraded due to pollution (i). With honeybees, we can determine how habitats are deteriorating and how much action needs to be taken. Pollution contributes to air pollution, which is the leading cause of heart disease, stroke, cancer and many other conditions (ii). Let’s take a moment to appreciate how these little creatures have contributed to the world in a HUGE way.  

What is a bio-indicator?

Before we go further into words or definitions about how honeybees are bioindicators, we need to know what a bioindicator is. Bioindicators, as the word says, indicate. What exactly do they indicate? They indicate the state of the environment, whether positive or negative. Bioindicators can be processes, species or a community that reflect the health of nature. How do they work? These indicators have a low or moderate tolerance to changes in their environment and indicate this, these indications help by biotic responses to the environmental stresses occurring. In other words, they are the warning signals when something is going wrong. Most bioindicators, when exposed to pollution, change their behaviour or morphological physiology. Bioindicators can be plants, animals or microorganisms. In an observed area where pollution is present, certain plants grow in the affected area. Monitoring is essential to notice the changes that occur. The way animals may express a change in habitat due to toxins or pollution is through behaviour or death. If toxins are present, an animal may begin to exhibit characteristics that do not correspond to its normal behaviour. If mortality is high in a particular area, this may indicate a decrease in nutrients normally present in their habitat. The level of toxins and nutrients is determined by research conducted in their digestive system or their physical appearance (iii). To put it in an everyday example, a bioindicator is like a dashboard in a car. In the car, when the “check engine” light comes on, you know that something is wrong in the engine. You still can’t figure out what exactly, but the car indicates that there is a problem

How are honeybees influenced?

Honey bees can respond to changes in the environment in two ways: through mortality and/or through hive products. Changes in the environment (climate, soil, temperature and more) take a toll on the wandering honey bee population. Because of their morphological characteristics, honey bees can carry toxins, heavy metals, and pesticides back to the hive (iv). Because of the structure of their bodies, they can also get material trapped in them, certain particles get trapped. These pollutants can be exported in the products of the hive and passed on to humans when consumed. In a study in Poland, bees were sampled to see if certain chemicals were detected (v). The study concluded that copper, chromium, zinc, magnesium and iron were found in the samples. The presence of these elements indicates a change in nature due to deforestation, industrialisation, transportation and waste production. The presence of these heavy metals affects the soil and water.  What worries scientists is that the increase in heavy metals is produced anthropogenically. Exposure to the heavy metals can increase the risk of adverse health effects in humans.  It is a cycle where the pollutants we create affect the honeybees and what they produce affects us.

What should we do?

Studies on honey bees as bioindicators are still developing. Over time, more evidence has accumulated on the effectiveness of honey bees as indicators of wildlife health. Scientists are learning more with each study about how to better pay attention to the signals being sent through the behaviours and products honey bees produce in the hive. There is no doubt that there needs to be a change in the way waste is disposed of and a reduction in the amount of pollution. If there is an increase or decrease in the bee population in the place you are observing, it may indicate that something good or bad is going on. The most important elements to observe with any type of bioindicator in an area are mortality and behavioural change.  With the extinction of honey bees, agriculture, economy and nutrition are at stake. They pollinate up to 90% of the plants needed for a balanced diet (vi). This percentage also contributes to the economy; global food production is directly dependent on pollination, generating between $235 billion and $577 billion. Another contribution of honey bees is biodiversity, the protection of animals and the continuation of life to plants. Bioindicators contribute to ecological impact statements. The mortality rate and the type and risk level of molecules are detected. It is an economically viable alternative compared to other specialised tools. Bees should be taken more seriously, as well as the benefits we have from them. Together we can save the world, one bee at a time.  


References: 

 (i) (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/bioindicators-using-organisms-to-measure-environmental-impacts-16821310/

(ii) Ecavo.com, P. A., Ecavo.com We highlight technology and ideas in energy sustainability, Ecavo.com, We highlight technology and ideas in energy sustainability, & →, V. A. (2020, October 23). Pollution Causes & Effects: How Does Wide Scale Pollution Happen? Retrieved from https://ecavo.com/pollution-causes-effects/

(iii) Bioindicators. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/resources/1538-bioindicators

(iv) Authors, A., & Parmar, T. K. (n.d.). Bioindicators: The natural indicator of environmental pollution. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21553769.2016.1162753

(v) Skorbiłowicz, M., Skorbiłowicz, E., & Cieśluk, I. (2018, May 01). Bees as Bioindicators of Environmental Pollution with Metals in an Urban Area. Retrieved from http://www.jeeng.net/Bees-as-Bioindicators-of-Environmental-Pollution-with-Metals-in-an-Urban-Area,85738,0,2.html#:~:text=Honey bee (Apis mellifera L,environment in which it lives.&text=Bee studies for metals contents,a consequence of anthropogenic activity.

(vi) Marko, S. (n.d.). The importance of bees. Retrieved from https://www.worldbeeday.org/en/about/the-importance-of-bees.html

Bees’ ability to forage decreases as air pollution increases. (2016, July 06). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/07/160706131924.htm

CELL, G., & MACCAGNANI, B. (2003). Honeybees as bioindicators of environmental pollution (Rep.). Retrieved http://www.bulletinofinsectology.org/pdfarticles/vol56-2003-137-139celli.pdf

Bulletin of Insectology 56 (1): 137-139, 2003 ISSN 1721-8861

Algül, F., & Beyhan, M. (2020, July 16). Concentrations and sources of heavy metals in shallow sediments in Lake Bafa, Turkey. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-68833

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