U.S. Water News Online
EDGEWOOD, Md. -- Research biologist Jerry Bromenshenk calls them "flying dust mops." A honey bee, he says, "is probably nature's most superb monitor of materials."
"You've got a little flying fuzzy creature with electrostatically charged hairs," Bromenshenk explained. "When they come back into the hive after foraging, they can provide samples of everything they come in contact with -- air, water, plants, soil."
And when their natural gathering abilities are augmented by the sophisticated instruments these researchers are developing to interpret and analyze the raw data they provide, you have what he calls a "very powerful tool" to assess toxic sites and zero in on environmental hazards.
Bromenshenk and his colleagues at the University of Montana at Missoula --including co-investigator Dr. Garon Smith, who is a professor of chemistry there -- are putting their expertise to study the monitoring capacities of bees for the federal government.
Thousands of honey bees have been shipped from Montana to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Edgewood, Maryland where they are being employed as environmental monitors to detect traces of escaping chemical weapons at one of the nation's most toxic dump sites. The Environmental Protection Agency added the Edgewood area to its Superfund cleanup list in 1990.
Using bees in this way is not new, according to Bromenshenk. What is new is the continuous monitoring techniques being developed by these researchers through the use of sophisticated technology. The new technology allowes the 10,000 residents of each hive to come and go relatively unhampered, and can also glean necessary information without killing the bees.
"This is a spin-off from the work I've been doing with bees for the past twenty years," said Bromenshenk, who added that the current research is highly interdisciplinary, involving specialists in biology, chemistry, computer science, and physics.
In this project, each of 14 beehives is enclosed in wooden boxes shaped like two-drawer filing cabinets that are loaded with high-tech instruments. Infrared beams across the entry slots record the comings and goings of the bees in each hive. The hives are constantly weighed, while other devices measure and chart their temperature and humidity.
Researchers periodically draw air from the hives through tubes loaded with carbon filters that trap volatile chemicals. They have also developed computer programs which simulate the learning process of the human brain. These "artificial neural networks" learn by experience, according to Bromenshenk, and so have allowed researchers to take the problem solving process to a higher level.
Computers are programmed, for example, to know the various weather conditions bees won't fly in, Bromenshenk explained. So when those conditions are not present, and the bees aren't flying, analysis can focus on other factors which could be indicators of environmental problems.
It's an enormously complex problem, but Bromenshenk insists the margin of error in this research has narrowed dramatically in the past few years.
"Is the pollutant available for biological uptake? That is the real issue," he said. "The physical presence of a particular toxic material alone is not a good indicator of the degree of hazard. This is where our method differs from conventional approaches."
What researchers here are looking for is what Bromenshenk calls "red flags" -- an unusual increase in a chemical, or the presence of a new chemical in the hive.
By vastly improving the amount and quality of data that can be gathered from the bees, these researchers can now put a particular site in the context of its surroundings, according to Bromenshenk
"We can map an entire area, not only to identify sources of hazardous emissions, but the dispersion of the problem relative to that source," he said. "We can tell you where you might need to clean things up, and can also tell you, if you cleaned a site up, whether or not you were successful."
The most miraculous part of all this, Bromenshenk observed, is that no matter what contaminants honey bees come into contact with as they forage for nectar, toxic substances -- even if found on their bodies -- are almost never found in the honey itself.
Return to the U.S. Water News Archives page
Return to the U.S. Water News Homepage