Historic Foodways Society of the Delaware Valley

Dedicated to the Preservation and Understanding of Food History

Spotlight on Food History

This page will highlight Historic Sites, Suppliers, Food Festivals, interesting information and organizations throughout the HFSDV member areas. 


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Can Honeybees Monitor



The tiny pollinators are useful sentinels

of what’s going on in an ecosystem, and

might just be environmentalists’ best asset



By Rachel Kaufman                                            smithsonian.com                       December 7, 2017


It’s a sunny day, and Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighborhood is buzzing. Commuters are commuting, delivery trucks are delivering, shopkeepers are shopkeeping. And on a half-acre garden surrounded by four busy streets, the city’s smallest workers are busy, too.


They’re bees, placed here by the nonprofit Hives for Humanity, a group that aims to build community through beekeeping. But the bees are doing more than making honey and facilitating friendships. They’re also monitoring the nearby area for pollution, with a little help from the Pacific Centre for Isotopic and Geochemical Research lab at the University of British Columbia.


There, lab director Dominique Weis and her team analyze the honey made by the bees in order to determine what’s in it.  “Honey is a representation of [pollution] sources in a hyperlocal environment,” says Kate Smith, a PhD candidate in Weis’s lab. “Bees drink water. They land on the soil. They pick up pollen.” And, of course, they drink nectar and make honey.


The project started three years ago when the founder of Hives for Humanity asked Weis if she could tell if the honey his bees were making was safe to eat. “Because she was being made fun of” for situating hives in a poor urban neighborhood instead of a more pristine, rural environment. Julia Common, the cofounder of Hives for Humanity along with her daughter, says “people were joking about finding heroin in the honey.” That was just a cruel joke, Common says, “but it got me thinking” about whether there might be anything else dangerous in the honey, such as lead from car and truck exhaust. She was introduced to Weis and the project took off.


Weis, Smith and her team, with help from Hives for Humanity, sampled about 30 hives for the pilot project. Apiarists use wooden coffee stirrers to scoop a bit of honey into a pre-cleaned container. They can’t use anything metal, because metal could contaminate the sample.  



Weis, a geochemist who normally studies Hawaiian volcanoes, figured out how to convert the honey into a solution that can be analyzed. To do this, the honey needs to be dissolved in a solution, then heated to 7,000 degrees Kelvin—hotter than the surface of the sun. Then it can be analyzed with a mass spectrometer, which separates and identifies the atoms that make up the honey—carbon, hydrogen and oxygen for the sugars, and trace amounts of other atoms.









Bees have been used as pollution monitors for decades. In its simplest form, they’re simply a canary in a coal mine: If a beehive is sickly or its bees die off, there’s probably some sort of pollution nearby. In recent years, monitoring-by-bee has gotten more sophisticated. The hive doesn’t need to suffer or die in order to provide valuable information.


Since bees visit thousands of flowers in a single day, usually in a tight radius of up to two miles around their hive, they both cover a lot of ground cheaply as well as provide a highly localized monitor. One must simply pop open a hive, harvest the honey and submit it to a battery of tests to know exactly what’s in the environment. Over the years, bees, honey and wax have been tested for fluoride, lead, zinc, nickel and potassium; more complicated molecules like naphthalene (a toxic compound derived from coal tar, and also the main ingredient in mothballs); even radioactive compounds like cesium, tritium and plutonium…….


Read the complete article at:


Ref: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/can-honeybees-monitor-pollution-180967431/#zpybJTpbulFkgDhd.99

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Updated  March 4, 2018


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Susan Luczu—Webmaster—2014-2018

March-April 2018

An apiarist uses a wooden coffee stirrer to sample honey from a frame in a beehive at Hastings Urban Farm. (Courtesy K. Smith)