It is now almost 15 years since scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, in New Mexico, buzzed with the results of a rigorous study. Study on sophisticated bomb detectors. Nevertheless, it is scientific research that confirms one of Fun Facts mentioned here. What does this have to do with honeybees? – you may ask. Well, their research suggests that bees can be used to detect explosives and compounds like TATP. Highly reliable and precise, these next-wave detectors are cheap to produce and easy to train. A single Queen produces hundred thousands of honeybees per year, and their training is based on the concept of reward with sugary water.
Entomologists have long known that honeybees can be trained to detect many scents, including the olfactory footprints of deadly explosives. This research reinforced those findings and suggested an approach that could prove useful for finding substances in populated areas.
Jerry Bromenshenk, a researcher with the University of Montana’s division of biological sciences, is one of the pioneers of bee detection systems. He has trained bee colonies to detect explosives, meth labs, and dead bodies, but he uses a different approach. Bromenshenk works primarily with free-flying bees that are allowed to roam large, outdoor spaces. When the bees detect the target scent, they tend to slow down and circle the area. Using audio, video, and laser systems, Bromenshenk and colleagues can analyze the flight patterns of thousands of trained bees and produce a density map indicating the most likely locations of the target substance. With tens of thousands of bees searching, they can quickly canvass an area of a mile.
Timothy Haarmann, principal investigator of the Los Alamos project has said that he and his colleagues trained bees to extend their proboscises–tubular organs used to suck the nectar from flowers–in the presence of explosives. When the proboscis is extended, the bee appears to be sticking out its tongue.
Honeybees can also pick explosives out of more complicated bouquets–like the myriad scents that surround a typical human being. Trained bees can identify explosives whose odors were masked by “lotions, underarm deodorants, and tobacco products,” Wingo says. “Much to our surprise, the bees are capable of picking out TNT in motor oil … Even in the presence of insect repellent, we can train them to detect TNT.”
Bees Can Be Used To Detect Explosives
Without further delay, let me explain to you how bees can be trained to detect explosives.
Honeybees are trained to recognize particular odors (for example, minute traces of explosive compounds), and then to associate that smell with a food reward. Bees are able to recognize odors that are as faint as only a few parts per trillion in an air sample. When the bees detect the special odor, they extend their proboscis in expectation of receiving food.
Trained bees are then carefully strapped into a cartridge. A sample of air is introduced into their little chamber.
A digital camera watches the bees carefully; if the bees detect a trace of the odor that they have been trained to recognize, image recognition software will see the bees extend their proboscis in the camera image. The machine then reports a “positive” finding of that chemical substance to the human operator.
Training 50 bees requires only two or three hours using this traditional approach, which takes advantage of an insect’s attraction to sugar water. “If you hold up sugar water [to bees], they stick out their proboscis,” Haarmann said. By combining a target substance with sugar water and then presenting the compound to the bee, the researchers manipulate the insects into recognizing a distinct smell. By the end of the session, successfully trained bees extend their proboscises toward explosives. Bees trained at one concentration of vapor easily recognize lower doses. Chemist Robert Wingo, who works on the project, says that the bees proved to be more sensitive than many sophisticated man-made devices. “They are capable of detecting TATP, and the instruments I have available in the lab are not able to detect TATP,” he says.
In Haarmann’s system the bees are contained in tubes so that their proboscises can be easily monitored. Unfortunately, a contained bee only lasts about two days. “We find that after about 48 hours you start to get a high mortality rate,” Haarmann says. Being confined is “hard on them.” Plus, not all bees prove to be up to the task of detecting explosives. Like dogs, some of the insects are more successfully trained than others. “We like to think of bees as these nice little robots, but there were certain bees that did better than others,” Haarmann says.
Haarmann and his team carried out field trials, and he believes that a bee-driven bomb detector may be only a year away. He envisions remotely controlled robots in battlefields, capable of carrying a small army of honeybees to a suspected IED (improvised explosive device) or car bomb. If the bees stick out their tongue, a bomb is close by.
“You lose a couple bees, and that’s disturbing to me,” says Haarmann, who keeps his own hives and used to teach beekeeping in South America. “But I’m the only one who is disturbed.”
Wingo, who had never worked with bees prior to this project, estimates that he received “hundreds” of stings during the 18-month research-gathering period. “It’s proven to be extraordinarily interesting,” he says, “but being stung is not fun.”
Once the bees have finished their “shift,” they are returned to their hive. The company prides itself on keeping its bees happy and healthy.
Researchers seem to be finding more and more reasons to partner with insects. Roboticist Garnet Hertz created a robot that was actually controlled by a Madagascar hissing cockroach (see the Cockroach-Controlled Mobile Robot). Honeybees may someday be used to provide positive ID for people (see Honey Bees Can Recognize You!)
Even though this study is significantly old, not a lot of people have heard about it. That is only reason why I chose to share this research with all of you. Hopefully, more people know about amazingness of honeybees, more careful they will become to their habitat. Perhaps one day we will wake up when people will respect honeybees more for amazing things they do. Perhaps one day we will wake up in less polluted environment. I hope, do you hope too? Whatever may be the result, honeybees are intelligent creatures that can be trained to do lot of things. That’s how bees can be used to detect explosives.