ELIZABETH ERB, HOST: We don’t know nearly enough about our city’s microbiome. That’s the invisible microorganisms which live with, including virus’ and bacteria that can cause anything from COVID-19 to cholera. Scientists worry we’re at risk. Especially as we’ve all been masked up and isolated throughout the pandemic. But imagine if we had millions of citizen scientists ready to help. As Henrietta McFarlane reports, a new study says we might just have that - honeybees.
HENRIETTA MCFARLANE, BYLINE: It’s 7am and I'm on 72nd and Central Park West at an annual beekeepers meetup. I am really really hoping that my childhood bee allergy is long gone.
MCFARLANE: There’s a crowd of beekeepers here queuing up to collect bees for the summer. Roger Birgman waves each beekeeper through and hands them a wooden crate of sleeping gold and black bees.
ROGER BIRGMAN: Yeah, I was thinking that the Queen is the only female. So there can't be Beatrice or or Betty or Bethany. Well, all the other B's have to be Ben and Barry…
BIRGMAN: Brian. Yes.
MCFARLANE: Andrew Cote is standing nearby. He brushes a few stray bees off the crates. (BRUSHING) He’s been looking after bees since he was 10 years old and was one of the new study’s participants.
Researchers had been trying to find new ways for mapping the good and bad germs in our neighborhoods. They’d originally started by sending humans down into the subways to swab surfaces on the city’s trains. But that kind of work can be slow, expensive and you just can’t cover a very big area. Then some spillages at a maraschino cherry factory Red Hook, drew their attention to the potential of a new group of scientists, Honeybees. Cote remembers this well.
ANDREW COTE: The maraschino cherry factory was discarding waste from their processing which consisted mostly of high fructose corn syrup and red dye number 40. It strode down the cobblestone streets like blood, the bees were highly attracted to the sweetness of it, picked it up, took it back to their hives, and it integrated with the genuine honey to make what appeared to be a red honey. But was in fact garbage.
MCFARLANE: The red syrup may have been unusable for beekeepers. But it was a blessing for a couple of scientists working at Cornell Medicine Centre. According to the study they recently published, bees could be better than the humans at gathering samples from of the microbiome.
There are three main reasons why…number one, you don’t have to pay bees. There are over 600 hives in New York City containing more than 60,000 bees - that is a lot of free workers! New York City beekeeper Heather Beaudoin is queuing up to collect bees.
MCFARLANE: So do you have to train your bees?
HEATHER BEAUDOIN: They train us. It’s like an airport in the morning. You just watch them go from the north, north, south, east, west, everywhere. Its like La Guardia, that’s the only way I can describe it.
MCFARLANE: Reason number two - you don’t need to train them. Unlike humans who scientists send out to the subway with swabs, bees are already out pollinating plants and flowers, sampling the environment. Dr. Elizabeth Hénaff came up with the idea for the study.
ELIZABETH HÉNAFF: The most common collection device that we are now uncomfortably familiar with after three years of pandemic is the swab.
MCFARLANE: But Hénaff says when you swab a surface you can only collect material from about a square foot. Which she says is a limitation.
HÉNAFF: Am I going to run down my whole block and like swab the entire sidewalk, because that's not going to be possible.
MCFARLANE: That’s when she thought - what about bees? They have built in swabs.
HÉNAFF: The kind of impetus of the project was thinking like, is there some kind of way that we could get a read of the microbiome of a city block or an entire neighborhood.
MCFARLANE: That’s the last reason number three - each bee covers roughly a 2 mile radius. That’s almost the width of Manhattan. It’d be impossible for humans to do that.
But that’s also one of the issues with the study according to Jack Gilbert, a professor of microbial ecology at UC San Diego. He says in order for the study to be valid, the bacteria collected by the bees would need to be compared against bacteria known to be in the neighborhood. It’s hard to know exactly where the bees went and what bacteria they interacted with where.
JACK GILBERT: You can look at epidemiological data based upon human health in that area, you can look at the accessibility to food in the area, you know, you're living in a food desert or food replete environment, those are the ways in which you would assess the health of your neighborhood.
MCFARLANE: Hénaff agrees - not being able to track the bees is a limitation. But she says the study offers a big picture understanding of the diversity of germs in our city. The study’s continuing in New York City. And Hénaff’s glad it’s generating a lot of buzz. Henrietta McFarlane, Columbia Radio News.