VANCOUVER, B.C. - We know them as honeybees but to Jerry Bromenshenk they are ``flying electrostatic dust mops.''
The University of Montana professor has been using honeybees to detect contaminants in the environment for the past 15 years.
As a bee forages for nectar and water, its body hair and surface electrical charges pick up particles from soils and plants.
Bromenshenk says some pollutants are concentrated in the bees' bodies. They can be measured when the bees are ground up and analyzed in a lab.
Rod Davis, the British Columbia Environment Ministry official in charge of the government's environmental monitoring program, says the bees could be a good reconnaissance tool to detect heavy metals.
Bromenshenk has used honeybees to find such toxic pollutants as fluoride, arsenic and cadmium.
Fortunately, honey is the least useful of all beehive products for monitoring pollution. Bromenshenk says contaminants are rarely detected in honey or found only in the parts per trillion range.
After hearing a presentation by Bromenshenk this fall, the British Columbia Honey Producers Association had discussions with Davis and other Environment Ministry officials about the technique.
John Gates, head of the British Columbia Agriculture Ministry's apiculture, or beekeeping program, says beekeepers plan to seek government funding this spring for a research project in British Columbia.
Gates says bees produce about $4 million Canadian ($4.7 million U.S.) worth of honey in the province each year but ``their value to society is many times greater because of their benefits to pollination.
``The tree fruit and berry industries in B.C. rely heavily on honeybees to increase the quality and quantity of their crops. Bees also pollinate wild plants that provide forage for animals and help prevent erosion. Now, it appears that honeybees can also be used to detect pollution.''
Bees cost less to buy and operate than pollution monitoring instruments, which each cost about $30,000 Canadian ($35,835 U.S.) The machines monitor pollution at a single point; most measure pollutants every third day because of high operating expenses.
Bromenshenk says beehive monitoring stations each cost $30 Canadian (about $35 U.S.). The hives contain several thousand potential monitors - all the forager bees in the colony. And the bees are sampling the environment every day within four miles of each hive.
Davis says the costs are ``a bit of an incomplete story,'' because the cost of analyzing bees in laboratories runs in the ``tens of thousands of dollars.''
He also says there is not enough research to correlate the level of contaminants in bees with the pollution levels.
Gates says beekeepers have not decided what pollutant to look for, or where, but want to focus on a pollution problem like dioxin contaminants if there is a reasonable chance of success.