Bomb-Sniffing Bees Could Protect Military, Civilians
Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory have developed a method for training the common honeybee to detect the explosives used in bombs.
Based on knowledge of bee biology, the new techniques could become a tool to combat the use of deadly improvised explosive devices (IEDs) encountered by American military troops abroad and also an emerging danger for civilians worldwide.
According to Tim Haarmann, principal investigator for the Stealthy Insect Sensor Project, the honeybee’s phenomenal sense of smell rivals that of dogs.
The Los Alamos scientists, including Kirsten McCabe and Robert Wingo, developed methods to harness the honeybee’s exceptional olfactory sense where the bees’ natural reaction to nectar, sticking out their tongues, could be used to record an unmistakable response to a scent.
The scientists began with research into why bees are such good detectors, going beyond demonstrating that bees can be used to identify the presence of explosives. Using reward training techniques common to bee research, the researchers trained bees to stick out their tongues when they were exposed to vapors from TNT, C4, TATP explosives, and propellants.
By looking at such attributes as protein expression, the team sought to isolate genetic and physiological differences between those bees with good olfaction and those without. They also determined how well bees could detect explosives in the presence of lotions, motor oil, or insect repellant.
The team studied structural units in the honeybee’s antenna and looked for biochemical and molecular mechanisms that could advance their ability to be trained and retain their training for longer periods of time.
Currently supported by a development grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Stealthy Insect Sensor Project is a collaboration of scientists and technicians from the Laboratory’s Bioscience, Chemistry, and Environmental Protection divisions.
Los Alamos National Laboratory is operated by a team composed of Bechtel National, the University of California, BWX Technologies, and Washington Group International for the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.