Updated: 1st May 2021
Believe it or not, honey bees can be trained to detect bombs!
Yes, we are all aware of the use of sniffer dogs by the military and by police
forces to detect drugs and explosives, but it appears that it is possible for honey
bees to perform the same task.
Bees naturally extend their tongues (proboscis) in response to food, and can be conditioned to do the same thing in response to a particular stimuli.
Through ‘classical conditioning training’, bees learn to associate a particular smell with food, so that they automatically stick out their tongues.
In this instance then, honey bees are being trained to respond by sticking their tongues out when they sniff the aroma from explosives.
Initiatives of this kind have been popping up across the world for some years.
For example, in the USA a group of scientists from the National Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico published findings of a study in which honey bees had been trained to stick out their proboscis (tongue) if they could smell explosives (such as dynamite or C4 plastic explosive) in almost any item, ranging from cars to trouser belts.
Tim Haarmann (from the Los Alamos team) said the bees could be carried in hand-held detectors the size of a shoe box, and could be used to sniff out explosives in airports, roadside security checks, or even placed in robot bomb disposal equipment.
He said the next step would be to manufacture the bee boxes and train security guards in their use.
Meanwhile a UK company called Inscentinel Ltd based in
Hertfordshire, England, were also harnessing honey bees in the line of explosives detection, and actually created
such a device. Moreover, the company stated that bees could detect explosives
at the miniscule concentration of 78 parts per trillion for some molecules!
Once trained, the bees were placed into a specially designed cartridge that also contained a digital camera linked to image recognition software.
A sample of air was placed into the cartridge, and if the air sample contained explosives aromas, the camera and recognition software would detect the bee extending its proboscis.
Following the exercise, the honey bees were
returned to the hive, and no bees were harmed during the process.
Other countries and research teams have also harnessed the olfactory
capabilities of honey bees to detect bombs and explosive devices over a wider
This is particularly useful in the detection of live land mines. In such locations, honey bees are releases to fly over a zones known to have been planted with land mines.
The bees can sniff out landmines 3 miles
away, and will swarm around them once detected.
By using heat-sensing cameras to track their movements, it is then possible
to identify the location of the mines.
Croatia is one such country that has been active in the use of honey bees for this task. During the Balkans conflict of the early 1990s, a great many land mines were laid in Croatia. Many have been cleared, but some have been missed, with the result that people who roam freely in affected areas occasionally step on a mine. Injuries and deaths from land mines total over 2,000 people.
Honey bees may be able to help in such locations, by detecting mines that have been missed by government and military bomb disposal units and companies.
theory, using classical conditioning methods, bees can be trained to sniff out many
things, from illegal drugs to training bees to detect human illnesses, and indeed research has been
carried out in this area.
Almost certainly, but because honey bees cohabit in vast colonies of thousands, it is probably easier and more efficient to train honey bees.
Just like honey bees, wasps are certainly being trained to sniff out bombs, drugs, illnesses, plant diseases and more.
Meanwhile, hissing cockroaches (as well as bees) are being used in robot development work!