NEW ROCHELLE, NY — Yaffa Segal is now a published science researcher. She was given an author credit in Environmental Research journal for a Canadian study into contamination found in bee nectar.
Two years ago, New Rochelle High School student Yaffa Segal began testing for heavy metals in honey from beehives around the region. Now, her research has taken on an international buzz.
Segal’s work, conducted for the NRHS Science Research Program, is a key piece of a study led by the University of British Columbia. The research examined samples of bees’ nectar from Paris to New Zealand to show how the sweet substance can be used to help map pollution.
Segal, a senior, learned that the scientists were considering the study when she first contacted the university in Vancouver, Canada to get ideas for her project. She was eventually invited to contribute to the study.
“They were excited to get honey from different sampling sites in the United States,” Segal said. She gathered some 50 samples, mostly from Manhattan, but also from the Bronx, New Paltz in Ulster County, Long Island, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.
Segal is one of six authors listed on the study, “Regional and global perspectives of honey as a record of lead in the environment.” It was published in January in the journal Environmental Research, which is produced by the medical and scientific information giant Elsevier. Segal is the only high school student among the authors, a standing the report points out, noting, “This study also demonstrates the utility of a community science effort for honey collection.”
For the Science Research Program, Segal’s accomplishment shows that the young scientists’ work not only earns awards in competitions with other high school students, but also can rank with research professionals.
“Yaffa’s accomplishment is so exciting. She is now considered a coequal among professional scientists,” said science teacher Jeff Wuebber, the head of the program. “Yaffa shines a light upon distant shores, redefining what is possible for all future science research students.”
Among other findings, the study affirmed that lead, once used widely as an additive in gasoline and paint, remains concentrated in areas of intense human activity, particularly older cities.
“For the New York data, they found the distance from urban centers has an effect,” Segal said. “The levels of heavy metals decrease almost exponentially as you move away from the urban areas.”
Honey makes a good marker because it contains a record of the pollutants the bees encounter when they travel up to two to three kilometers from their hive.
“When a bee flies through the air, many pollutants can get stuck on its fuzz and make its way into the honey,” Segal explained.
Even before collecting samples, Segal learned about Apis mellifera, the western honey bee, by contacting a beekeeper friend at the Greenburgh Nature Center, where she has volunteered for years. She suited up in protective gear to learn how to handle the insects in their human-made hives.
“I was definitely nervous when I first opened the hive, but I’ve always been kind of a tree hugger, and bugs never freaked me out too much,” she said. “Typically, bees are really docile, so much so that you can scoop them up in your hands, and you won’t get stung. I was also wearing a full bee suit, so the risk was fairly low.”
While examining samples, she made interesting discoveries, such as one honey sample with an isotope identical to the lead found in bullets. Further examination provided a clue to the coincidence.
“When I looked, the hive was on top of a police station,” she said. The precinct had its own beekeeper.
In the end, her research and that of the others in the study laid a foundation for further exploration. The report’s conclusion reads, in part, that its findings provide “a sound starting point for building current baseline data for honey as a biomonitor for metals in the regions discussed here and provides a global framework for (lead) isotopic compositions in honey, which is useful context for more localized studies.”