Air pollution isn’t just affecting us humans, but also our furry, scaly, and winged co-inhabitants on this planet. A new study has found that air pollution is a major threat to honeybees. While you can’t see the heavy metals, nitrogen oxides, and fine particulate matter filling the air, not only are they there but they have been linked to several health conditions such as lung and cardiovascular diseases.
People often don’t think about the critters in our world and how the effects of pollution can affect them as well. In the new study from India, however, it was discovered that air pollution isn’t just keeping the bees from being able to find their flowers, but it’s making them sluggish in their day-to-day activities, and it can even make their lives shorter.
The 3-year study took place in India and found that just mildly dirty air could kill 80% of giant Asian honey bees. This particular bee is a key pollinator in South Asia. If these bees and other insects die out, the production of domestic fruit, vegetables, nuts, and legumes will be at risk, according to the research team.
The study was inspired by ecologists at the National Center for Biological Sciences based in Bengaluru, India. The researchers wanted to know just how India’s massive pollution was affecting the bees. In India, air pollution had already killed over a million human lives back in 2015. In that study, it was shown that exposure to air pollution increased one’s chances of death and that air pollution is “a leading contributor to global disease burden.”
Bengaluru has had its own problems with air pollution, so Geetha Thimmegowda, a postdoc in Shannon Olsson’s lab at the institute, got to work collecting honeybees in the city. The researchers chose four sites across the area where pollution such as smoke, soot, and dirt ranged from healthy to dangerous. Upon assessing the bees, Thimmegowda saw the effects of the pollution close up. Thimmegoda compared specimens from two sites. One of those sites was Peenya, which is one of Asia’s largest industrial areas. Olsson noted that the bees were in very bad shape. One “was covered with all sorts of crud and particles. Its body looked like a warzone,” she said.
Bees from the heavily polluted sites died faster than bees that came from sites that didn’t have as much pollution. Bees from the polluted areas had arrhythmic heartbeats, fewer immune cells, and higher signs of stress. Bees that died also had trace amounts of arsenic and lead covering their bodies. As they pollinate the flowers, it stands to reason that these same toxic metals are introduced to the flowers they are pollinating.
The study’s authors conducted an experiment with cages of fruit flies at the same sites. As with the bees, the flies became smothered in pollutants and died faster where there was more air pollution.
It’s so obvious — stop polluting the air! But it’s hard. Humans need their cars and their manufacturing jobs. We rely on pollution for the comfort of our own lives. We don’t think about the planet as we throw away single-use items such as hand-sanitizing wipes (I saw an ad for this on Instagram), or plastic bottles that we use for everything ranging from soap to shampoo. We don’t stop and think about how products are made and what the cost is — I’m not talking about the retail price tag you paid, but the full cost to the environment.
If you’re reading this and you feel helpless — as if there is nothing you can do — then I have some news for you. You, the average consumer, may not be aware of the power you have to help our furry-winged, pollinating friends. The Honeybee Conservancy has a small list of ways you can help. In a nutshell, they are:
- Plant a bee garden.
- Go chemical-free.
- Become a citizen scientist (join a movement).
- Plant trees for bees.
- Create a bee bath — fill a shallow bowl with clean water and fill with stones.
- Do not use honey — keep the water clean. Create homes for bees (look into DIY projects).
- Sponsor a hive — this is a program that the Honeybee Conservancy offers. A donation ensures that you receive the tools to do so.
- Educate your neighbors about the importance of bees.
- Donate or even host a fundraiser for local organizations that help the bees.
- Support your local beekeepers.
Sometimes, these problems seem so impossible to solve, but if we all do a little something, we will make a difference. I’m going to make a nice bee bath for my neighborhood bees — I have plenty of minerals that are safe to put in water. What will you do? Pick something from the list and feel free to comment below.