A Sweet Chemical Analysis

Dominique Weis is a Canada Research Chair in the Geochemistry of the Earth's Mantle and the Director of the Pacific Centre for Isotopic and Geochemical Research (PCIGR).

When geochemist Marghaleray Amini returned to Vancouver from a trip to Afghanistan last year, she brought back a jar of honey from a remote mountain town. It was intended as a gift for Dominique Weis, director of the Pacific Centre for Isotopic and Geochemical Research (PCIGR), an internationally renowned analytical facility housed at UBC.

But rather than spread the honey on toast, Amini and Weis decided to do what any self-respecting researchers would do. Analyze it. After all, they had been analyzing so much honey it seemed only natural to also look at this jar.

“I said, wait! Don’t eat it!” Amini recalls yelling, laughing.

Honey wasn’t always of scientific interest around PCIGR. Although UBC researchers there have analyzed everything from oysters to basalt, this was an unusual and different material.

Honey was first brought to PCIGR in 2014 from the urban beehives managed by Hives for Humanity. The goal was to determine if it was safe for human consumption, analyzing it for trace metals and lead isotopic composition.

“It’s important to know what you eat, especially if it might contain metals like lead which accumulate in your body,” says Weis. “But our honey research also helps us establish environmental baselines and impacts.”

Julia Common oversees all Hives for Humanity bee hives. She believes urban beekeeping helps build more inclusive communities.

An unusual location

Hives for Humanity is a non-profit founded by mother-daughter duo Julia and Sarah Common (a UBC alumna with a BSc in Agriculture). In 2012 they brought one beehive into a Downtown Eastside community garden in Vancouver. They hoped beekeeping would bring the people in the area together and support endangered bee populations. Last year seven bee species were added to the US endangered species list. Bee populations have also declined in Canada.

From that humble beginning, Hives for Humanity expanded to 200 colonies around the city. There are even hives above the Vancouver Police Department.

“I didn’t know if it would work,” Julia Common says, explaining that despite many years tending hives in the countryside, she had never done urban beekeeping.

“But after that first season I had a conversation with a community beekeeper. He started talking about what we might do next spring. How we could have more wax, more honey. He was looking ahead.”

In the Downtown Eastside people live day by day. Poverty doesn’t allow residents many chances to peer into the future. To speak of a next spring is “a huge moment,” Common explained. She knew they needed to keep the project going. But although the bees were thriving, there was a nagging issue.

“People made jokes about our honey, wondering if it was laced with heroin,” Common says, shaking her head. “There are many negative stereotypes about people living in the Downtown Eastside.”

Julia Common wanted to make sure the honey was safe. But she couldn’t find many studies on urban honey and contaminants. A chance meeting with Weis sparked an idea. Weis had access to specialized equipment that could analyze the honey, and PCIGR could also glean interesting information about the environment from the sweet stuff.

Bees feed on plants up to a three-kilometer radius from their hive—so each hive could function as a tiny sample of the local environment. The honey could show the researchers what the environment the bees are living in is like. Minuscule levels of lead, zinc, arsenic, copper and cadmium could be measured through geochemical and isotopic analysis.  

“Isotopes are like fingerprinting,” says Weis. “They can tell you where a pollutant, like lead, is coming from.”

These fingerprints allow researchers to track the origin of similar materials which are otherwise undistinguishable. Isotopic analysis can also determine what the growing conditions of local plants are like, what nutrients they receive, and what soils they grew in.

The foraging area around a beehive extends for three km. Samples are taken from beehives across the Lower Mainland.

The carefully packaged honey samples arrive at PCIGR for analysis. The facility houses 15 state-of-the-art instruments and sample preparation laboratories.

Organic materials are delicate and must be carefully processed. PCIGR has analyzed everything from Pacific oysters to Hawaiian lava.

Sticky situation

But honey was a new material for the researchers at PCIGR. You can’t just stuff it into a test tube. It had to be carefully broken down, making sure the organic components were not burnt, and then diluted.

And the lab needed a reference material – a standard against which samples are tested. It’s relatively easy to get a bunch of rocks, for example, basalt from Hawaii, to serve as a reference material. But nobody had honey which could be employed as reference material. The lab ended up using rice flour—at the chemical level it closely resembles honey.

“I’m more used to crushing rocks and looking at those,” says Amini. “Organic materials are more challenging. In the case of honey, you don’t want to harm the bees and disturb the hive as you’re taking samples.”

Mother-daughter partnership: Julia Common and her daughter Sarah started Hives for Humanity after Sarah spent time working in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

The heart of the organization's work is in therapeutic mentorship of at-risk communities in the art of beekeeping.

Hives for Humanity is also attempting to raise awareness about the importance of pollinators.

Marghaleray Amini hopes to bridge traditional knowledge of honey as a medicinal tool with modern science.

Honey for your health

The lab results show that the urban honey produced by Hives for Humanity is safe for human consumption. But in the long-term, the bees are working on a much bigger project—helping PCIGR establish a baseline of pollutants in the Greater Vancouver area. Since the beehives are located all over the GVRD, it will be possible to tell how many pollutants were in the environment in certain sections of the GVRD in previous years, as well as the source of the pollutants.

Weis wants to expand her study to analyze the soils in Vancouver’s community gardens, along with the honey. A few years ago all farming and beekeeping operations took place in the countryside, but urban farming is becoming increasingly common, and increasingly important.

“Gardens are popping up everywhere. There are urban gardens which may be in a location where there once was a gas station,” Weis says. “That has potential issues.”

Amini believes that even if certain locations pose problems, plants may be able to filter out pollutants in urban sites. Research could establish how long it might take the plants to accomplish this, and what kinds of plants would be best for each job. You could have land which is not suitable for growing crops, but might work as a “bee space” with flowers and hives.

But for Amini, the most interesting possibility honey offers is medical research. When she was a child in Afghanistan, honey was used in many communities for wound healing. Now Amini wonders if isotopic analysis can help us understand the efficacy of honey. She plans to look at metal stable isotopes, whose utility has been shown in cancer studies, but which haven’t been analyzed in honey.

“The pure basic research on how honey affects our metabolism is still not there, so there are biomedical applications we can look forward to uncovering,” Amini says.

All of this sounds very exciting to Common, who looks forward to continuing her work with PCIGR.

“Our bees are thriving at a time when many aren’t. What PCIGR did for us put us at ease in the beginning, because we knew we were making good honey,” she says. “It gave us confidence.”


All photos courtesy of Pacific Centre for Isotopic and Geochemical Research (PCIGR) and Hives for Humanity. Learn more by visiting their respective websites.