biology zoology blog bee insects honey

Bee Prospectors

Bee Prospectors can be paid for their services in sugar water

Not only was I good as a child in distinguishing (by taste) different kinds of tea, like Ceylon broken orange pekoe, Assam orange pekoe or Darjeeling flowery orange pekoe (well, my grandfather was a tea merchant), I also had a good tongue for different kinds of honey – and I still have my favourites. Actually for hundreds or even thousands of years (the bee is said to have been mentioned in the Bible at least 40 times) the medicinal qualities of honey have been appreciated by humans around the world and many a folk remedy incorporates this sticky insect product.

According to some etymologists the word “medicine” itself is derived from the mildly intoxicating drink “med”, also spelled “mead”, which results when honey in the comb is allowed to ferment and Alexander the Great, so one report goes, was preserved in honey when he died. Whether true or false, fact or myth, honey is an excellent preservative and modern technology in the form of mass spectrometry has given us a tool to investigate in more detail and greater objectivity than ever before what gives the honey its characteristic properties.

Thanks to the late Dr. Peter Molan’s research (his office was next to mine), we can now also rank the different honey types according to their anti-bactericidal effectiveness, which of course ultimately depends on the flowers of the plant species that the bees had collected their nectar from. But on their foraging trips, which can take the worker bees (and they are all females) several kilometres away from their home hives, the bees also collect pollen for their brood and it is the pollen that British and other scientists elsewhere believe can be used to provide clues on the nature of the soil that the plants have been growing in.

Dr J. Free of Rothamsted found through various tests that a distinct correlation existed between the kinds of metal traces on the pollen collected by the honey bees and the metal contents of the soils in the areas in which the bees had been foraging. The metals most commonly encountered in the analyzed pollen material were iron, zinc, copper, aluminium, titanium, cobalt, calcium, and silicon. it would be quite conceivable that honey bees can be used in the future to help assessing the agricultural potential of a given area or to assist in prospecting for metals in territory to which human access is difficult. In North-East India Dr Abhik Gupta was involved in a project that used honey bees to study the presence of abnormally high environmental mineral contents and heavy metals like lead and cadmium, which could be detrimental to humans either directly or indirectly through honey consumption. Detecting pollution is therefore another important area in which honey bees can be of help.

Considering that bees manage to go where humans can’t and considering the hefty hourly wages that human prospectors and environmental controllers or assessors expect to be paid, it makes sense to employ bees in this way: they can be rewarded in sugar water rather than hard cash (but they do refuse to work and go on strike on rainy days and may also simply not want to leave their hives when it’s windy and they feel too cold). Well, as the saying goes: there’s always two sides to a coin.

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2018.
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