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Bees on a honeycomb in Germany. Bees on a honeycomb near Düsseldorf International Airport. (Andreas Wiese / Düsseldorf International Airport / NY Times / Redux)

Biodetective Bees

Honeybees help scientists on the lookout for pollution in Germany

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Bees held up by an airport beekeeper (Philipp Guelland / AFP / Getty Images / NewsCom); map of Germany (Jim McMahon)
Bees held up by an airport beekeeper (Philipp Guelland / AFP / Getty Images / NewsCom); map of Germany (Jim McMahon)

Scientists working with airports in Germany have come up with a new way to test pollution in the air—honeybees!

Pollution releases poisonous chemicals called toxins. Some toxins in the air can get trapped inside flowers and plants that bees rely on to make honey. So German scientists came up with the idea to test for toxins in honey made by bees that buzz close to areas where there may be a lot of pollution—like airports.

In June, honey was tested from 200,000 bees near an airport in Düsseldorf, Germany. Scientists were surprised by the low amount of toxins in the honey. They think that means the airport was not polluting the air as much as they had believed. Scientists are using bees at six other German airports as well.

"Terrestrial bioindicators" (living things used to test the environment's health) are still part of a new science. The seven German airports using bees as environmental police are not going to replace traditional testing for pollutants anytime soon. But officials say it's easier for people to believe bees rather than strict scientific testing.

After it's tested for safety, the honey—called Düsseldorf Natural—is even bottled and given away as gifts!

If you happen to be in Düsseldorf and want to see the swarm at work, its hive is outside Gate 18.

This article has been adapted from The New York Times Upfront.

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