Tag Archives: honey

Cold War legacy: US honey still has radioactive fallout from nuclear tests

Radioactive fallout from nuclear tests done in the 1950s and 1960s is still present in honey from the United States, a new study shows. While the levels of radiation aren’t considered harmful, they highlight the lingering persistence of environmental contaminants in the nuclear age – more than half a century after the bomb tests finished.

Image credit: Flickr / Robert Schmidt

Five countries, including the US, have tested over 500 nuclear weapons in the air, which, taken together released far more ionizing radiation to the atmosphere than any other event or combination of events in human history. Most of the weapons were detonated in just a few remote locations like the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. But even as the tests happened in these isolated places, the effects were still visible.

“There was a period in which we tested hundreds of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere,” lead researcher Jim Kaste, an environmental geochemist at William & Mary University in Williamsburg, Virginia, said in a statement. “What that did was put a blanket of these isotopes into the environment during a very narrow time window.”

While most of the radiation produced by a nuclear weapon detonation decays in days, one of the longest-lived and more abundant fission products is cesium-137, with a radioactive half-life of 30 years. As it has a similar ionic charge and radius as potassium, an essential element for plants, it’s absorbed by plants from the soil. From then, it can be passed into the food chain.

Honey is produced by wild and managed pollinators around the world. Bees make honey by reducing the water content of flower-derived nectar by nearly 5-fold, which concentrates both the delicious taste and any environmental contaminants that would be absorbed by the plants — in this case, evidence of nuclear tests.

Several researchers found the presence of cesium in honey and pollen across Europe in the past. To see whether plants continue to take up this nuclear contaminant, Kaste asked his undergraduate students to bring back local foods from their spring break destinations to test for cesium. One student brought honey from North Carolina and it had cesium levels 100 times higher than the rest of the collected foods, triggering Kaste’s curiosity.

Eastern North America received disproportionally high fallout from the 1950s to 1960s nuclear weapons tests despite being relatively far from the detonation sites, mainly due to the prevailing westerlies and high precipitation. The cesium in this region’s soil today is sourced nearly entirely (over 90%) from the weapons test.

Kaste and his group of researchers explored the issue further by collecting 122 samples of locally produced, raw honey from across the eastern US and tested them for radiocesium. They found it in 68 of the samples, at levels above 0.03 becquerels per kilogram—about 870,000 radiocesium atoms per tablespoon. The highest levels were in a sample from Florida.

Those numbers are nothing to worry about. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration told Science that the radiocesium levels reported in the new study fall “well below” 1200 becquerels per kilogram — the cutoff for any food safety concerns. Even Kaste said not to be worried and that he eats more honey now than before the study.

“What we see today is a small fraction of the radiation that was present during the 1960s and 1970s. And we can’t say for sure if cesium-137 has anything to do with bee colony collapse or the decline of population,” Kaste said in a statement. Of course, should larger concentrations accumulate, it could be a problem. Following Chernobyl, scientists showed the radiation could affect the reproduction of bees.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

Study finds first evidence of honey hunting in prehistoric West Africa

Around 3,500 years ago, prehistoric communities from West Africa used to hunt for honey and then use it for food and medicinal purposes, according to a new study. Researchers found fragments of honey locked inside pottery fragments, which shows the importance of honey collecting in an early farming context.

Image credit: The researchers

Honey is the most important insect-related food globally. It comprises 80–95% sugar, several essential vitamins and minerals, and components that act as preservatives. Wild honey is known to be collected by foragers globally, except in environments such as the Arctic, where bees don’t survive.

Today, honeybees are an integral part of socio-ecological landscapes and beekeeping plays an important economic role with around 1.6 million tons of honey being produced annually around the world. However, evidence for ancient human exploitation of the honeybee is rare, with the exception of paleolithic rock art depicting bees and honey.

A team of researchers from the University of Bristol and the Goethe University carried out a chemical analysis of more than 450 prehistoric potsherds from the Central Nigerian Nok culture to investigate what foods they were cooking in their pots. The team found that a third of the vessels were used to process or store beeswax. 

“We originally started the study of chemical residues in pottery sherds because of the lack of animal bones at Nok sites, hoping to find evidence for meat processing in the pots. That the Nok people exploited honey 3,500 years ago, was completely unexpected,” Peter Breuning, a co-author of the study, said in a statement. 

The presence of beeswax in ancient pottery is identified through a complex series of lipids — the fats, oils, and waxes of the natural world. The vessels were likely used to melt the wax combs, leading to its absorption within the vessel walls, to cook the wax, or to store the honey itself, the researchers argued in their study. 

Honey is an important food source for hunter-gatherers and there are several groups in Africa, such as the Efe foragers of the Ituri Forest, who have historically relied on honey as their main source of food, collecting all parts of the hive — including honey and pollen from tree hollows which can be up to 30 m from the ground.

As well as using it as a food source, the researchers argued honey could have also been used to make drinks such as beer and wine – which are common across Africa today. Writings of ancient explorers describe the use of these practices. Ibn Battuta, a Muslim scholar, tells of a drink made with honey in Mauritania in 1352. 

Honey and beeswax may also have been used for medicinal, cosmetic, and technological purposes. There are records of beeswax being used in prehistoric times as a sealant or waterproofing agent, as a lamp illuminant, and as raw material to make candles. Honey was also been recorded to be used to store other products such as smoked meat. 

Professor Richard Evershed, co-author, said in a statement: “The association of prehistoric people with the honey bee is a recurring theme across the ancient world, however, the discovery of the chemical components of beeswax in the pottery of the Nok people provides a unique window on this relationship, when all other sources of evidence are lacking.”

The study was published in the journal Nature. 

Traces of toxic lead from Notre Dame fire found in Parisian honey

When it burned last year, the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris released hazardous lead dust that landed in parks and buildings across the city, raising health alarms for its residents. Now, researchers have found that the lead found its way into honey produced by urban beehives.

Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons.

Researchers analyzed concentrations of metals, including lead, in 36 honey samples collected from Parisian hives in July 2019. All the honey was within tolerable limits for consumption, but the honey from hives near Notre Dame had lead concentrations four times higher than the samples from Parisian suburbs.

“Because of the way the wind was blowing the night the fire burned, the direction that the smoke plume traveled is well-defined. The elevated lead concentrations were measured in honey that was collected from beehives within that plume footprint,” said Kate Smith, lead author of the study, in a press release.

Smith and her team compared the honey obtained after the fire with a Parisian blend from 2018 and with samples from 2017 from the region of Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes. A sample from a hive five kilometers west of Notre Dame had the highest concentration of lead, 0.08 micrograms, while the pre-fire honey had 0.009 micrograms.

The European Union allows a maximum lead content of 0.10 micrograms per gram for syrups, sweeteners, and juices. Lead is a potent neurotoxin and a high exposure to it can kill, while lower levels can lead to health problems, such as cognitive and physical damage and shortened attention spans.

Lead was a highly used building material in Paris during the time of the construction of Notre Dame, which dates back to the 12th century. The roof and the spire of the cathedral had several hundred tons of lead and while most melted during the fire, some flames reached temperatures high enough to aerosolize lead oxides.

“We were able to show that honey is also a helpful tracer for environmental pollution during an acute pollution event like the Notre-Dame fire. It is no surprise, since increased amounts of lead in dust or topsoil, both of which were observed in neighborhoods downwind of the Notre Dame fire, are a strong indicator of increased amounts of lead in honey,” said co-author Dominique Weis.

The fact that honey bees usually forage within a two- to three-kilometer radius of their hive allowed the researchers to use honey as a localized snapshot of the environment. Bees collect dust and airborne particles, which then end up in the honey. The researchers worked with an apiary company, which manages 350 hives in Paris and provided them with the samples for the study.

It’s the first time a heavy-metal analysis through honey has been done in a megacity. The method came out of previous work by the same researchers, in which they measured trace amounts of metals in honey from urban beehives in six Metro Vancouver neighborhoods, demonstrating the use of bees as an effective biomonitor.

The study was published in the journal Environmental Letters.

Bee markets still in good shape despite pressures from parasites and colony collapse disorder

A new study led by researchers from Montana State University examines the economic impact of colony collapse disorders (CCD) among commercial honeybees.

This research traces back to several years ago when Randy Rucker, a professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics in the MSU College of Agriculture, started looking into the phenomenon of colony collapse to estimate its economic impact, along with members from North Carolina State University and Oregon State University. All in all, they report, CCD isn’t a very big threat to current commercial pollinator markets.

Not good, not terrible

“With colony collapse disorder, a beekeeper goes out and virtually all the worker bees are gone,” said Rucker.

“Twenty thousand, 30,000, 40,000 worker bees, just gone. There are very few dead worker bees on the ground near the colony, and the queen, the brood and all the food are still there. But the bees are just gone.”

CCD is still poorly understood. The phenomenon first came to the attention of the industry and the public during the winter of 2006-2007, when mortality rates among bees were estimated to be around 30% of the total population. Since then, it’s been stoking concern in conjunction with other pollinator health issues (such as the Varroa mite) among beekeepers and the public.

Rucker and his team set out to identify the economic effects of CCD by analyzing trends over four categories: nationwide number of commercial honeybee colonies, honey production, the price of queens and packaged bees, and pollination fees charged by commercial beekeepers.

Rucker explains that bee populations naturally fall during the winter months. Prior to the onset of CCD, overall winter mortality rates revolved around 15% — so beekeepers have a lot of experience replacing dead hives and dealing with bee loses. Typically, they handle these issues in two ways: splitting, or simply buying more bees.

Splitting involves taking half the bees from a healthy colony and moving them to a hive that’s struggling. A newly-fertilized queen (purchased for $18-25 and received through the mail, the team explains) is also added in the mix. In about six weeks’ time, both hives should be up and running healthily. Bees can also be purchased pre-packaged through the mail; such a purchase typically includes a fertilized queen and several thousand worker bees. These ‘reinforcements’ are placed in a dead hive in order to restart it.

The team notes that both methods are relatively easy and inexpensive to pull off for beekeepers, who have relied on them even after the onset of CCD.

“Beekeepers know how to replace dead hives,” said Rucker. “As winter mortality increased after CCD appeared and beekeepers worried about having enough hives to meet their pollination contracts in the spring, they responded by splitting more hives in mid- to late summer and would then end up with the number they needed.”

Despite the extra splitting and increased demand for bees from beekeepers, the price of queens or the insects has not increased dramatically, the team found. They say this is indicative of the fact that “the supply of queens and packaged bees is sufficiently elastic that any increases in demand associated with CCD have not resulted in measurable increases in price.” Similar trends were found for colony numbers and honey production figures. Both metrics saw downward trends before the onset of CCD, and they still do, but the rate of decline hasn’t increased. They explain that colony numbers in 2018 were actually higher than they had been over the last 20 years.

The only meaningful negative impact that the team found was in the fees asked for commercial crop pollination. Even there, however, only one commercially important crop showed a significant increase in price: almonds. With about a million acres of almonds in need of pollination each year, it takes about 70% of U.S. managed honeybee colonies to get the job done.

Fees for almonds rose from roughly $70 to almost $160 — adjusted for inflation — over the winters of 2004-2005 and 2005-2006. However, that’s before the onset of CCD, the team notes

“Almonds get pollinated in February or March, and it’s really the only major crop that requires pollination during that time of year,” said Rucker.

“Almond pollination fees did go up substantially, but they went up before CCD hit. You can’t attribute those increases to colony collapse disorder.”

The team says that the findings suggest CCD and other recent pollinator health concerns have little direct consequences on the health of commercial pollinator markets, which is good for both industry and consumers.

“When we started this project, we expected to find huge effects, but we found very small ones,” said Rucker. “The only effects we found on consumers, for example, is that they probably pay about 10 cents more for a $7, one-pound can of almonds at the grocery store.”

The effects of CCD are so small, Rucker explains, likely because most beekeepers expect some of their bees and honeybee colonies to die over the course of the year, and have traditionally developed methods of dealing with these disruptions. The framework was already there, and beekeepers were able to adapt it quickly and efficiently to overcome the extra disruptions caused, for example, by CCD or mites. But, there are still a lot of unknowns about the disorder, and the paper focused on the particular overlap of colony collapse disorder and economics.

Where wild pollinators are headed is impossible to say based on the results of this paper alone, the team cautions.

“The bottom line is that beekeepers are savvy [businesspeople],” he said. “Our research provides reason for optimism about the future ability of commercial beekeepers to adapt to environmental or biological shocks to their operations and to pollination markets.”

It says nothing, however, about non-managed pollinators. Data on those pollinators’ populations are sparse, and the impacts of maladies like CCD on their populations are not well understood. There is definitely much more work to be done to grasp the effects of CCD and other threats to bee health.”

The paper “Colony Collapse and the Consequences of Bee Disease: Market Adaptation to Environmental Change” has been published in the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists.

Honey bee.

Honey bee colonies dropped by 16% worldwide in the winter of 2017-18

There are now 16% fewer honey bee colonies than in the winter of 2017-18, reports an international team of researchers led by the University of Strathclyde.

Honey bee.

Image credits Martin Tajmr.

The study was based on voluntarily submitted information from 25,363 beekeepers from 33 countries in Europe — including the four nations of the UK — along with Algeria, Israel, and Mexico. Out of the 544,879 colonies these beekeepers managed, 89,124 were lost over the winter of 2017-18. The main causes of colony loss were weather, queen-related issues, and natural disasters.

Losses weren’t equally-distributed across the globe. Portugal, Northern Ireland, Italy, and England experienced losses above 25%, while Belarus, Israel, and Serbia saw loss rates under 10%. Countries including Germany, Sweden, and Greece experienced significant variations in the local rates of bee colony loss, the team explains.

Losing bees

“Loss of honey bee colonies is a highly complex issue. It tends to be influenced less by overall climate than by specific weather patterns or a natural disaster affecting the colony,” says Dr Alison Gray, a Lecturer in Strathclyde’s Department of Mathematics & Statistics, and lead author of the study.
“We observe colonies in winter but what happens to the bees then can be partly determined by the conditions of the previous summer.”

Bee colonies declined in number by 16.4% across the studied area, the team reports. While this is lower than the loss rate of 2016-17 (20.9%), it was significantly higher than the 2015-16 loss rate of 12%. The study is the work of researchers in the colony loss monitoring group of the international honey bee research association COLOSS, based at the Institute of Bee Health at the University of Bern, Switzerland.

One finding that stands out from similar studies of previous years is that beekeepers who moved their colonies during the foraging season — giving their bees access to new sources of pollen — reported fewer losses than those who didn’t move around. This finding goes against the grain of previous research. Overall, the team adds, smaller-scale beekeeping operations saw more losses than large-scale ones.

“The impact of beekeepers migrating their colonies would be expected to be partly dependent on the distance traveled and the reasons for migration; this would be worth further investigation,” Dr Gray explains.

“Many are also lost when there are problems with a colony’s queen — for example, if she goes missing or is not laying the fertilised eggs which go on to become worker bees. Most colonies are also under attack from varroa mites, a parasitic mite.”

The study focused on six sources of forage (the plants bees visit to collect nectar and pollen) in six categories: orchards; rapeseed; maize; sunflower; heather, and autumn forage crops. These were potentially useful food sources for bees, the team explains, and they could definitely help a colony out. However, they add that by extending the active and brood-rearing season of the bees, forage which was available late in the season could also extend the reproductive cycle for varroa mites, weakening the bee colonies and making winter losses more likely.

The paper “Loss rates of honey bee colonies during winter 2017/18 in 36 countries participating in the COLOSS survey, including effects of forage sources” has been published in the journal Journal of Apicultural Research.

New beehive extracts honey without disturbing the bees

Beekeeping can be quite difficult, but thanks to a new invention – it just got a lot easier. Stuart and Cedar Anderson, a father-and-son developed a tap system which allows the honey to be harvested without actually disturbing the bees.

The Flow Hive not only reduces bee stress, but also eliminates one of the most laborious and unpleasant activities connected to beekeeping. It collects honey from a beehive with a novel spigot system that taps into specially designed honeycomb frames. Traditionally, this was done by removing the frames from the beehive, then opening them with hot knives and loading it into a centrifugal machine. Here’s how the Andersons explain their invention:

“The Flow frame consists of already partly formed honeycomb cells. The bees complete the comb with their wax, fill the cells with honey and cap the cells as usual. When you turn the tool, a bit like a tap, the cells split vertically inside the comb forming channels allowing the honey to flow down to a sealed trough at the base of the frame and out of the hive while the bees are practically undisturbed on the comb surface. When the honey has finished draining you turn the tap again in the upper slot resets the comb into the original position and allows the bees to chew the wax capping away, and fill it with honey again.”

[Also Read: Bees make blue honey after eating M&Ms]

The importance of this invention is not only for the beekeeper, but more for the bees. Honey bees around the world are in trouble from something called colony collapse disorder, and this is highly worrisome not only because of the honey they produce, but because of the plants they pollinate. Global bee populations are dropping at an alarming rate, and we still don’t have a good idea how to deal with it. Any way of relieving stress from the bees is much welcomed.

I’m still not sure how this could be scaled industrially, but in the meantime, for the individual beekeeper, it’s a great way to save time, money, and ease some stress off the bees. The system is easy to build, adapt, and I see a lot of room for improvement. If you want to find out more information, check the FAQ page.

More info: honeyflow.com | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter (h/t: colossal)

Bees make blue honey after eating M&Ms


The difference between normal honey (right), and M&M infused honey.

It’s a tough period to be a bee – even though it’s fairly clear by now that the massive bee wipe-out is caused by pesticides and fungicides, and even though places where such pesticides have been banned report huge increase in bee health, the world is still not taking steps to save the little insects. To put it bluntly, bee numbers are dropping, and they will continue to drop massively unless we actually do something. To add insult to injury, some bees in France have now made blue honey after eating M&Ms from a nearby factory.

French beekepers have found themselves in an extremely unfortunate position when their bees produced honey in different colors than natural. Since August, beekeepers around the town of Ribeauville in the region of Alsace have seen bees returning to their hives carrying unidentified colorful substances, which they used to create honey of extremely unusual colors. Baffled by this behavior and result, they investigated the cause, trying to figure out what the insects were eating.

Their search took them to a biogas plant 4 km (2.5 miles) away – a processing waste from a Mars plant producing M&M’s, bite-sized candies in bright red, blue, green, yellow and brown shells. The honey, of course, is unsellable – for pretty much the same reason M&Ms should be unsellable – it’s extremely unhealthy. Even though it may taste like normal honey, it’s nothing like it.

Colored honey hi

“For me, it’s not honey. It’s not sellable.”- that’s the general idea of beekepers in the region.

The batch of polluted honey makes even more problems for beekepers, creating a financial hole which will be very difficult to fill up.

When contacted, Mars didn’t respond and didn’t make any comment on the situation. Still, Agrivalor, the company operating the biogas plant, said that they weren’t aware of this problem, and they only found out about it when the beekepers did, which is, let’s say, understandable. They claim to be now running an operation designed to stop this problem.

France is one of the largest producers of honey within the European Union, producing some 18,330 tonnes annually. As for this area, Ribeauville is best known for its wine production, but it also produces about 1,000 tonnes of honey per year. It’s still unclear how much of the honey production was affected by M&Ms.

When first made, the comb cells of the Italian honeybee (Apis mellifera Ligustica) are circular (top), but after two days they already look more hexagonal (bottom). (c) Nature

Fluid dynamics shapes beautiful hexagon honeycombs, not the bees themselves

Honeybees are exquisite and majestic beings, which have always caught the imagination of people. Bees are typically associated with feminine energy, because they are ruled by queens, particularly with the roman goddess Venus. In some cultures, bees also represent wisdom. From a biological point of view however, bees could be definitely associated with motherhood. Without bees, a myriad of plants would die out due to lack of pollination. It’s clear that honeybees are of the utmost importance for the biosphere’s delicate balance.

There’s one more thing honeybees are cherished and appreciated by humans for: their display of biological engineering, namely for producing hexagon honeycombs. This may be the only thing people overly credit bees for, though. The perfect hexagonal honeycombs which have awed and inspired people for thousands of years may primarily result from the physics of surface tension, the honeybees themselves being responsible only for laying the foundations.

The findings come after researchers at University of Cardiff, UK,  led by engineer Bhushan Karihaloo, closely studied a colony of bees. After they flushed the colony out by smoking the hive, the researchers examined the honeycomb structures, some in their last stage of development, while other in their first incipient form. The scientists found that bees first produce cells that are circular in cross section, which eventually build up like a layer of bubbles. The wax, heated by  the bees’ bodies, then gets pulled into hexagonal cells by surface tension at the junctions where three walls meet. Both experiments and models have confirmed these findings.

When first made, the comb cells of the Italian honeybee (Apis mellifera Ligustica) are circular (top), but after two days they already look more hexagonal (bottom). (c) Nature

When first made, the comb cells of the Italian honeybee (Apis mellifera Ligustica) are circular (top), but after two days they already look more hexagonal (bottom). (c) Nature

Why hexagon of all shapes? Well, a geometric array of identical cells with simple polygonal cross sections can take only one of three forms: triangular, square or hexagonal. Of these, in this particular situation, the hexagon shape takes the least amount of wall area, thus using less wax. Nature , as always, is guided by efficiency.

But wax is solid, right? Yes, and for the wax to flow, this is why the bees heat up the cells – to be more precise, to 45 oC or warm enough to flow like a viscous liquid. Not all bees heat up the wax, of course, otherwise the whole colony would collapse. A median ambient temperature of 25 degrees in the hive supports this idea. As an interesting fact, one of the greatest foreseeing minds, Charles Darwin, also had the idea that the bees might first make circular cells, which become hexagonal subsequently, but lacked evidence to support his proposal.

Still with knowing this, bees still can be seen as excellent engineers of the animal kingdom. For one, it’s they who lay out the ground work, and make sure physics takes its course by heating the wax. They also use their head as a plumb-line to measure the vertical, tilt the axis of the cells very slightly up from the horizontal to prevent the honey from flowing out, and measure cell wall thicknesses with extreme precision. Really, bees are so amazing!

The study was reported in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface