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Study: Air Pollution Diminishes Fragrance of Flowers

Air pollution from power plants and automobiles is diminishing the fragrance of flowers and thereby inhibiting the ability of pollinating insects to follow scent trails to their source, a new University of Virginia study indicates. This could partially explain why wild populations of some pollinators, particularly bees, are declining in several areas of the world, including California and the Netherlands.

The study appears online in the journal Atmospheric Environment.

The scent molecules produced by flowers in a less polluted environment, such as in the 1800s, could travel for roughly 1,000 to 1,200 meters; but in today’s polluted environment downwind of major cites, they may travel only 200 to 300 meters. This makes it increasingly difficult for pollinators to locate the flowers.

—Co-author Jose D. Fuentes, a professor of environmental sciences, UVa

The result, potentially, is a vicious cycle where pollinators struggle to find enough food to sustain their populations, and populations of flowering plants, in turn, do not get pollinated sufficiently to proliferate and diversify.

Other studies, as well as the actual experience of farmers, have shown that populations of bees, particularly bumblebees, and butterflies have declined greatly in recent years. Fuentes and his team of UVa researchers, including Quinn McFrederick and James Kathilankal, believe that air pollution, especially during the peak period of summer, may be a factor.

To investigate this, they created a mathematical model of how the scents of flowers travel with the wind. The scent molecules produced by flowers are very volatile and they quickly bond with pollutants such as ozone, hydroxyl and nitrate radicals, which destroy the aromas they produce. This means that instead of traveling intact for long distances with the wind, the scents are chemically altered and the flowers, in a sense, no longer smell like flowers. This forces pollinators to search farther and longer and possibly to rely more on sight and less on smell.

The scientists calculated scent levels and distances that scents can travel under different conditions, from relatively unpolluted pre-industrial revolution levels, to the conditions now existing in rural areas downwind from large cities.

It quickly became apparent that air pollution destroys the aroma of flowers, by as much as 90 percent from periods before automobiles and heavy industry. And the more air pollution there is in a region, the greater the destruction of the flower scents.

—Jose Fuentes

The National Science Foundation funded the investigation.


  • Quinn S. McFrederick, James C. Kathilankal and Jose D. Fuentes; Air pollution modifies floral scent trails; Atmospheric Environment Volume 42, Issue 10, March 2008, Pages 2336-2348 DOI: 10.1016/j.atmosenv.2007.12.033 



So much for the auto's & smoke stack industries' supposed massive efforts to reduce exhaust & chimney pollution. Along with the gathering reports that children's & adults' degrading health who are in longterm & close proximity to freeways, these new 'scent' reports point out that new waves of pollution reduction must be undertaken. Yes, we closed our eyes & nostrils to the destructions around us.


Not many bees around here in northern italy this year !


Oddly there were no such reports in the 1970's when air pollution, particulates, SOx, NO, CO, etc. were extremely high in California's Central Valley, San Juaquin and Fernando valleys, and the 4000 acres of floriculture fields along the Cali coast.


Yeah, gr...Even in the hey-day of environmentalism, we weren't studying a lot of things...kinda like those present day short-distance health effects of freeways.


Umm, it doesn't take a "study" for the farmer to tell you his flowers are not getting pollinated.

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