Oct 14, 2008

Bomb-sniffing Bees

Why is this bee restrained and being (punny!) assaulted by a cotton swap? It's easy. It's being trained to sniff out something other than nectar. Why? Because bees (and wasps) make for amazing scent detectors.

Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico are working on creating portable teams of bees that can sniff out almost anything with a scent. Want to find a bomb? Bring those bees that have been trained to locate TNT or fertilizer. Want to search baggage or an apartment complex for drugs? Easy, just bring your drug-sniffing bees along.

It turns out that bees are easier to train than dogs, don't get tired or bored easily, and are often much more accurate than electronic devices. The University of Georgia has a similar project going, called the Wasp Hound (hey, AKC, we need a breed of dog called the wasp hound--get on it). And the British government is working on an insect-based system for searching out bombs and minefields.

But wait, how do you follow the bees? They fly at 15 miles an hour and are quickly lost in a crowd. The ingenious solution: train the bee handlers on how to read bee behavior. Place five bees in a box, and watch the video screens as the cameras inside watch the bees tell you where to go as they buzz and prance about inside the box. Voila, you've got yourself a portable, box-shaped, bee-driven bomb sniffer.

I recommend reading the full article. It really is amazing. Thanks, Judy.


Denita TwoDragons said...

COOL! Not only do you get a better bomb sniffer, you also get one that can provide you with yummy honey and beeswax on the side. And no pooper-scooper duty, either!

I always wanted to get into apiculture. Someone front me the money for a couple of Langstroths and a bee suit, willya? It's for the good of the country! ;-)


Shane said...

Hey! This is a good idea. Of course, it would be better if the bees had been trained to sting the one carrying the bomb (of course, then they would need to train another batch of bees). Then all they would have to do is find the dude screaming "BEEES!!" or simular term. Lol. (I apologize for my sadism. =/) This is a good idea though, it would be possible to train a whole colony to do this, due to bee's communication. They Dance to tell one another what they have found. So, if the trained bees teach their hive the "C4 Boogaloo" then they could all possibly learn!

Theodosia said...

Personally, I'd rather have giant African pouched rats sniffing out the land mines. They do, in fact, work for peanuts!

(www.apopo.org for "ugly" details)

Kit said...

Aren't bees short lived (aside from the queen)? How long does it take to train them vs how long they live? I'd also rather have a bomb sniffing rat. If the bee gets angry and stings just once... your bomb sniffing device has just committed suicide.

morgan said...

Kit--they actually take only two or three exposures to a scent coupled with sugar water to train, which is why people are getting all excited about this (crime dogs, on the other hand, take months or years to train).

Through this pavlovian conditioning, the bees associate the smell of bombs with the sweet taste of the reward, so whenever they smell some infinitely trace amount of the chemical, their little tongues stick out in anticipation, more or less, which is what the camera picks up.

I don't know about you, but I think it sounds pretty cute!

Also, they're already using bees like this to test people for the early signs of tuberculosis.

Kit said...

Thanks Morgan!

I didn't realize how quickly bees learned to associate the scent of bombs with food, but dang, that's quick! Most typical drones only live a few months, so I guess they have to learn quickly before they die.

Anonymous said...

You don't need a crate full of bees. I'll go out there with a bee on a string.

Jack Ruttan said...

How about dogs shooting bees out of their mouths?

Raging Wombat said...

Your solution, Jack, is the best, of course.

Jack Ruttan said...

Homer Simpson FTW!