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SANTA FE, N.M. — Most people think of a honeybee, apis mellifera, as an industrious community minded worker associated with the production of a sweet, viscous, syrup called honey.
Scientists have discovered that honeybees can be trained to “sniff out” minute residues of specific volatile organic compounds (VOC) in the air at levels in parts per billion (ppb). And can be trained in a similar fashion as Pavlov’s dogs.
Honey bees are teachable and can be trained to locate and detect VOC’s thanks to their unique biological assets. Bee biologist Timothy Haarmann to the Associated Press in 2006 that “These bees really perform. The beauty of the bee is that when it has a sugar water reward, it sticks out its proboscis. It's not a little tiny tongue. It's bigger than the antennae."
Ivan Hoo, the general manager at Rothamsted Experimental Station in England, told ksl.com that they started a collaboration with Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL) in the United States in 2004, which led to LANL receiving a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects (DARPA) for research work on Stealthy Insect Sensor Project.
Rothamsted Experimental Station initially developed the technology with the Institute of Arable Crops Research. Inscentinel, the parent company, is one of the oldest agricultural institutes in the world founded in 1843. It is located at Harpenden in the English county of Hertfordshire.
DARPA is known for funding strange and innovative technologies in an effort to document and assist in national security efforts. DARPA spent $1.5 million to $2.3 million (estimates are contradictory) in 2006 attempting to perfect the technology for a possible military application.
Ultimately DARPA concluded after an 18-month investigation that "Bees are not reliable enough for military tactical use at this point,” according to spokeswoman Jan Walker. She told the Associated Press in 2006 that although the research was positive, she saw no further funding from the Department of Defense.
Ironically, the new technology is now back in the public arena in the form of a licensing from the LANL and includes the possibility for use in the detection of human or animal diseases and cancer detection. Dogs have also been used in this capacity; however, they may not be as well suited for the job as are bees. On the other hand, people are not usually afraid of dogs, but may be startled by bees.
A bee’s location can also be monitored over a wide area in agricultural settings and by attaching a radio transmitter on individual bees allowing locations to be identified remotely. Typically bees disseminate up to three or four kilometers from their hive, giving those monitoring a wider coverage than would ordinarily be the case.
This technology would also be useful for the detection of landmines. Moreover, the technology is available in the form of sensor boxes for agricultural robots for fully-automated screenings and detection of agricultural pests, like identifying plant pathogens such as powdery mildew.
This allows shipments to be prescreened and may even be used to identify early-on problems with crops in the field before harvest. It can also be used to eliminate unnecessary fungicide and pesticide crop treatments.
Bees connect “molecular trails” with food, and under observation can identify a VOC’s based on odor. Additionally, bees when they return to their hive transmit information to co-workers, including the location of a food source. Those food source locations are then swarmed to exploit the food source. Bees can be conditioned to exhibit this behavior to the exclusion of flowers. When bees are used they are rewarded with sugar water.
In the outdoors, bees can cover a larger area less obtrusively than dogs. Moreover, a bee’s weight is insufficient to trigger an explosion of a detected landmine or explosive.
Researchers and scientists know that bees can be conditioned to exhibit a specific, identifiable behavior. Combining the scent of the sugar water with the scent of a VOC (dynamite vapor or odor, cancer, Powdery mildew), would allow bees to alert humans to the presence of the VOC‘s with greater ease.
There are some drawbacks. A bee is an opportunist. If a bee finds an additional target that is more exploitable, it will transmit that information to the hive, resulting in a swarm at that location.
Bees can also be used for indoor or in confined areas like airports and security checkpoints” Since they are so adept at identifying VOC’s associated with explosives. Bees can be loaded into a cassette using 38 bees per cassette. The bees are inserted into tiny harnesses that do not harm to the insect. This technology is called BiB or Bees in a Box. The box can be as small as a shoebox. The technology has a similar appearance to a compact version of an airport X-ray machine.
This technology was specifically tested by DARPA and the Pentagon. The bees also have civilian applications and can be trained quickly and monitored by expert technicians who watch bee behavior on camera that is indicative of a specific VOC.
Essentially bees would replace dogs. Now end users can literally work out the bugs in this new technology and undertaking.
Mel Borup Chandler lives in California. He writes about science-related topics, technological breakthroughs and medicine. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.