Animal sentinels
Claude Morgan

Jerry Bromenshenk has been monitoring levels of pollution in the environment with specially equipped chemical "sniffers" for nearly 30 years.

On a moment's notice, he and a team of scientists from the University of Montana in Missoula can transport their laboratory, set up their finely-tuned instruments and put these highly-sensitive sniffers to work.

On site, the sniffers take millions of samples from the air, soil and water, and process them into scientific data.

But these are no ordinary, off-the-shelf tools. They're bees — honeybees to be exact. And if what the University of Montana team says is true, then these little buzz-units may be our best hope for "real-time," accurate monitoring of the environment.

Bees and other so-called "animal sentinels" are supplying scientists with a surprisingly complete picture of the natural world we inhabit.

Unlike mechanical monitoring equipment, bees (Apis mellifera) are inexpensive, replaceable and give instant feedback.

"We do all of this in real time," says Bromenshenk. "When our little honey bees are in trouble, so are the humans."

The team, funded in part by grants from the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Department of Energy, already has helped locate and track pollutants and radioactive material at nearly 30 sites across the country.

Using small, portable hives, lap-top computers and custom-built equipment for chemical analysis, the scientists test for a variety of chemicals and compounds.

"We can find anything from petrochemicals to perfumes," raves Garon Smith, the team's chemist.

"We can find anything from toxins to glow-in-the-darks," adds Bromenshenk. "Mother Nature made bees the perfect collectors."

Consider the majesty of their design. Sporting a stubble of electrostatically-charged hairs, bees lure pollen — and other particles — to their bodies like magnets. They filter air and water through their bodies at a phenomenally fast rate. Their home, the hive, makes a near-perfect gallery for observing the off-gassing of the man-made pollutants they pick up.

Duly impressed, even the Department of Defense now employs an army of honeybees. Maintaining a permanent hive since 1995, the Army employs not one but two animal sentinels at Ft. Dietrich, Maryland. Bees keep the grounds in compliance with state and federal environmental standards while tiny bluegill fish stand watch for improper levels of wastewater.

Bees are everywhere. Bee-keeping is one of the oldest agricultural practices known to mankind. Beekeepers maintain hives in almost every corner of the globe.

Capitalizing on that vast network in 1984, the University of Montana team used local bees and beekeepers in Puget Sound to solve a regional, and ultimately, national mystery: Where were large quantities of arsenic, cadmium and fluoride coming from? The bees quickly found the culprit: a smelting plant in Tacoma, Washington.

Published in the journal Science one year later, the Puget Sound study remains the only scientific proof to date of long-range heavy metal transport, says Bromenshenk.

Traces of man-made pollutants are everywhere. So, how do you know where to start cleaning up? The University of Montana bees are mapping large tracts of land in Maryland to give regulators a picture of the problem.

If chemicals and compounds don't belong in the environment, says Bromenshenk, bees are the first to ferret them out.

"If it's in the hive and it's not part of the bee's biology, we see it," he says. "And if we see it, we can measure it."

So, how accurate a reading does Mother Nature's perfect collector give?

"We're looking at parts per trillion, dipping toward the level of quadrillionths," says Bromenshenk.

In fact, he says, honeybees are so accurate that his team is willing to pit them against any mechanical chemical sniffer used in the field today.

Testing the desert air for evidence of chemical weapons in Iraq, says Bromenshenk, United Nations monitors employed a mere 30 sniffing stations across the entire country. With more than 15,000 individuals per mini-hive, his bees could have flown circles around the U.N. stations.

Given the political difficulties encountered by chemical-weapons inspectors in places like Iraq, Bromenshenk says, there is yet another reason why bees make excellent monitors.

"Bees conveniently ignore whether it's a 'sampling day' or not," he says.