New research suggests that honeybees are catching not just pollen on their furry bodies but also microplastics, regardless of if they are city bees or from rural areas. Scientists propose bees could be used to assess pollution and measure airborne microplastics. It also helps explain the prevalence of microplastic in honey.
Microplastics are made from the breakdown of plastic objects, and because they are so small they travel by both air and water – and now bee – getting everywhere, including remote parts of Antarctica.
Bees have evolved to have hairy bodies that pick up pollen, the hairs being electrostatically charged during flight to help things stick. However, according to the study published in Science of The Total Environment, about one-sixth of all particles found on the bees studied were microplastics. Of this, 52 percent were fragments and about 38 percent were fibers. Thirteen different types of polymer were found on the bees with the most common type being polyester, used mostly as a synthetic fiber, followed by polyethylene and polyvinyl chloride.
The bees analyzed came from 19 beehives and were all worker bees, Nine of the apiaries were from the center of Copenhagen, and the remaining 10 from suburban and rural locations. The city honeybees had more microplastics, but not much more compared to the countryside bees, indicating wind dispersal over large areas could be a factor.
The source of these microplastics is unclear. It could be from beekeeping practices, like clothing and equipment, that could be leaving plastic traces in the hives. Or it could be from the wider environment, as evidence has shown microplastic pollution is present in air, soil, and water. Bees can pick them up in multiple ways. It is quite possible that airborne fibers get stuck to the fluffy flying insects.
The team believes that this finding can be used to monitor pollution in the environment better. Bees tend to investigate an area up to 8 kilometers from their hive when foraging. By studying the amount of plastic pollution on them at the end of their life, it would be possible to identify how much microplastics are getting into the environment and possibly from where.
Another question is how much microplastics affect bees in general and honeybees in particular. We know that pollinators are under duress from several types of pollution, including pesticides. An increase in microplastics on the bodies of honeybees could be yet another factor threatening the survival of these animals, as well as other pollinators.
A recent review has shown that there is currently not enough data to answer that question. Only one study has looked at the problem so far, specifically to the effect of feeding polystyrene to bees. It is unknown how microplastics can affect queens, drones, and whole colonies. It is unclear also if honeybee tissues can accumulate microplastics and if so, how quickly, making it apparent more research is needed to fully understand this pressing issue.