Bees are amazing little insects. They build near architecturally perfect hives and have such sensitive smell that they can detect the faintest trace of pollen articles in the air. It’s this powerful smelling ability that intrigued scientists and has them looking at bees as bomb-sniffing security bugs.
While police and military personal have been using dogs to sniff out explosives for decades, and humans have been keeping honey bees for their honey for centuries, it’s only in the last few years that researchers have begun looking at bees as a mean of security. Scientists from the Defense Advanced Research Laboratory have been studying bees since 1999 and want to train them to do the job of bomb-sniffing dogs, because bees have a better sense of smell. Okay, that’s cool, but just how does one go about training a bee?
Well, basically the same way you train any animal, you’ve just got to find a way to make bees recognize TNT the same way they do pollen. Scientists expose the smell of TNT to bees and then touch the bee’s antenna with sugar water, as a reflex the bee sticks out its tongue in search of nectar. Do this enough and the bee naturally has the same reaction to explosive materials as it would to pollen. By containing the bees in an enclosed structure, researchers can use monitoring equipment that is alerted when the bee sticks out its tongue. Researchers are working on making a portable carrier with the bees that could be used at airports, subway stations, checkpoints and other places where bees could detect target chemicals in concentrations as low as a few parts per trillion.
Previous studies had found that while uncontained bees worked very well in small, outdoor areas, where security could easily monitor their swarming, but it was harder to track them in large, uncontained spaces. Not to mention that you can’t really have a swarm of bees hovering around inside an airport, hence the reasoning for finding a way to use the bees to sniff bombs while keeping them contained in a transportable device.
Bee populations in the UK and United States have been on the decline for over a decade and honey bee gardeners like Robin Dardington are optimistic about the news. “Everything that bees do for mankind, will help mankind do back for bees,” said Dardington. “Bees at the moment have very severe problems in the wild, and we need people giving them help.”
It might look like a strange or even cruel practice for the bees, but as researchers pointed out, animals that are unhappy don’t respond well to training. And in the wild bees will search tirelessly for pollen, but the research bees only sniff for around two days before being set free.
On a side note, the entire thing sounds like a perfect premise for a Pixar movie: “Bee Blast: The Story of the Bomb-Sniffing Bee That Saved the World.” It has a nice ring to it, right?