The presence of microplastics on bees could be harnessed as a marker of pollution levels, a team of scientists from Denmark say.
Their research – which was published earlier this year – found that around one-sixth of the particles found on bees’ furry bodies was microplastics, 52% of which were fragments and 38% were fibres. Of the 13 types of plastic found, polyester was the most common material on the insects, followed by polyethylene and polyvinyl chloride.
The bees sampled came from 19 apiaries across Copenhagen and its surrounding rural regions. While the city bees had collected more microplastics, it was not a significant amount more than the rural bees.
While a worrying indication of our levels of plastic pollution, the team says it could provide a valuable opportunity to monitor and track pollution levels.
“This work demonstrates for the first time the possibility of using honeybees as a bioindicator for the presence of MPs (microplastics) in the environment,” they say.
This would not be the first time bees are used as indicators of pollution – having previously been used to trace pesticides, air pollution, and even radioactive fallout. It would, however, be the first time the honey-makers would be used in the monitoring of microplastics.
Scientists in Chile, Argentina, and Canada, and the United States have already found bees to collect plastic fragments from packaging and bags to line their nests, providing additional insight into how the insects have accumulated the micro-fibres on their bodies.
Previous research has also indicated that microplastics are found in 12% of food produce such as beer, milk and honey – from samples collected in Ecuador. While there has been debate over whether evidence of this is conclusive, the latest research into honeybees shows microplastics are increasingly infiltrating into our ecosystems, though more research is needed to discern the true impacts of this on surrounding flora and fauna such as bee colonies.