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Honey as a biomonitor for a changing world


Urban geochemistry is an emerging field in which key scientific and societal challenges, including rapid urbanization and population growth, compel investigation of readily accessible biomonitors to determine the source, transport and fate of heavy metal pollutants in cities. Lead isotopic analyses of honey have recently proven its efficacy as a biomonitor for Pb source apportionment applications. We collected honey directly from hives in six geographical sectors in Vancouver, British Columbia (Canada) to investigate the presence of potential pollutants from varying zoning districts: urban, industrial, residential and agricultural. Systematic variations in trace element concentrations and Pb isotopic compositions of the honeys reflect proximity to anthropogenic land-use activities such as shipping ports and heavy traffic. Honey sampled from downtown hives, near the Port of Vancouver, shows elevated trace element concentrations compared with suburban and rural honey, and distinctly higher 208Pb/206Pb (that is, less radiogenic) compared with local environmental proxies (for example, oysters, Fraser River sediment and volcanic rocks), indicating possible input from Asian anthropogenic sources. This study presents the first Pb isotope data for North American honey, and supports the combined use of trace elements and Pb isotopic compositions in honey as a geochemical biomonitor.

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Fig. 1: Map of the GVRD, featuring locations of the beehives sampled for this study.
Fig. 2: Bivariate concentration plots of selected trace element concentrations versus Pb concentration for honey from the GVRD sampled in 2014–2017.
Fig. 3: Effect of radial distance from the Port of Vancouver on Pb and Cu concentrations and V/Ni ratios in honey.
Fig. 4: Lead isotopic compositions of all honey digests from this study.
Fig. 5: Lead isotopic composition of all analysed honey and tree rings from this study compared with local geological samples and anthropogenic sources.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available in the Supplementary Information files and from the corresponding author upon request.


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Funding for this project was provided by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Discovery Grant and Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies Solutions Award, both awarded to D.W. Additional support awarded to K.E.S. was provided by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s Multidisciplinary Applied Geochemistry Network and via the University of British Columbia’s International Doctoral Fellowship. The authors thank J. Common, co-founder and chief beekeeper of Hives for Humanity of Vancouver, her team of apiary experts and her network of community volunteers, who provided honey samples, access to hives for direct sampling, and indispensable education and guidance for PCIGR scientists. The authors also thank the apiarists B. Finlay, E. Mitchell and A. Garr/K. Grecia for providing honey from Galiano Island, Bowen Island and the Vancouver Convention Centre rooftop, respectively.

Author information




D.W. conceived the study and, along with V.W.-M.L., K.G. and M.A., developed the sample preparation and analytical methods for the first two years. K.E.S. managed the project, performed systematic field work across the GVRD, perfected the analytical techniques and analysed the data. K.E.S. and D.W. wrote the manuscript. A.E.S. performed the tree ring analyses. All authors commented on and provided edits to the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Kate E. Smith.

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Supplementary Figures 1–2, Supplementary Method Notes, Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary References 1–31

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Smith, K.E., Weis, D., Amini, M. et al. Honey as a biomonitor for a changing world. Nat Sustain 2, 223–232 (2019).

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