Honey Bees Can Detect Illness In Humans

Updated: 1st May 2021

  • Honey bees have an even more powerful sense of smell than dogs!

  • Honey bees can be trained to detect certain illnesses in humans, and can even before tests that are currently used.

  • They do this by smelling the illness on the breath.  The human breathes air into a small box through a funnel.  The small box is inside the large box and has bees inside.  If bees smell the illness, from the breath they fly from the large box into the smaller box.

It has long been known that honey bees (Apis mellifera) have a sense of smell that is more acute than that of dogs, enabling them to detect odors in very tiny concentrations of only several parts per trillion (although, unlike sniffer dogs, it appears that bees can only be trained to ‘detect’ one target odor). 

It has been found that  honey bees can be trained to detect certain illnesses. 
Using a simple ‘classic conditioning’ training program (like Pavlov’s dogs) it is possible to train honey bees to detect the biomarkers for tuberculosis, diabetes, lung cancer, pancreatic cancer and skin cancer. 


Honey bee - Apis mellifera grappling with yellow pollen on a pink Japanese anemone flower.Honey bee - Apis mellifera on Japanese anemone.


With regard to the detection of cancer, it is important to understand the essential point that the bees detect the cancer earlier than the tests currently used.  This is a very significant discovery: earlier detection should lead to earlier treatment, which could lead to better survival rates.

How are honey bees trained to detect illness, such as cancer?

In classical conditioning training, the bees are exposed to a particular odor and then rewarded with a sugar solution so that they then associate the odor with food.  Bees have already been trained to detect the scent from substances used in bombs


Honey bee - Apis mellifera worker with full pollen baskets on a deep pink dahlia flower.Honey bee - Apis mellifera on dahlia.

In cancer, it is known that the human body releases hundreds of ‘volatile organic compounds’ (VOCs) in body fluids (including in the breath) – some from processes occurring within the body, others from the environment. 

It is known that the expression (release) of some VOCs from within the body can be affected by pathological (disease) processes.  Glands called Apocrine glands are known to contain pheromones that retain information about a person's health that bees’ antennae can identify.

A few VOCs have been shown to be consistently accurate biomarkers for some diseases so that if bees are trained to sniff them, they would then be able to detect the disease. 

Biomarkers associated with tuberculosis, lung cancer, skin cancer and diabetes, which can all be detected through smell, are present on a patient's breath – to be precise, in the subjects exhaled breath condensate.  It is these biomarkers that bees are trained to detect.


How accurately can bees detect illnesses like cancer?

The bees have an accuracy rate of 98%!

What happens in practice?

A UK-based Portuguese designer, Susana Soares at the Royal College Of Art, has designed a glass chamber device for the purpose of using bees to detect illnesses.  Actually it’s two chambers with one inside the other.  The outer chamber has bees flying around in it.  

The patient breathes through a funnel which leads into the smaller inner chamber.  If the bees detect the target odor (i.e. chemicals caused by the illness which are expressed on the breath), they fly into the smaller chamber, thus verifying the presence of the target odor.

Bees really are amazing!  So much brilliance packed into a tiny creature!


Resources

  • The Smithsonian Mag - Can Bees Be Trained to Sniff Out Cancer? 


More articles about bees

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