A European army of bees has been given a unique (and completely flower-free) mission: to find explosives.
Researchers in France and Croatia have raised bees that they claim are able to sniff out the thousands of unexploded mines that still dot the Balkans. The Telegraph reports that almost 120,000 land mines remain underground in identified minefields in the wake of the 1992–95 Bosnian war. Since then, hundreds of people, including de-miners, have been killed by the hidden explosives in Croatia alone. Recent weather has worsened the situation: A flood wiped out warning signs that marked the fields and caused some land mines to resurface.
Finding the explosives has been expensive and hazardous, so biologists turned to bees, which can detect smell as effectively as dogs. The insects cost less and are small enough not to set off explosives.
Yves Le Conte, who directs the bee and environment unit at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, started working with Croatian scientist Nikola Kesic four years ago.
“We knew that bees were sensitive to certain smells, like geraniums or nerol, for example,” Le Conte told The Telegraph. “The challenge was to get them to learn to spot TNT.”
His team has been training the “sniffer bees” to associate sugar with the scent of TNT. Kesic has received government funding and will run open field experiments with a colony of about 30,000 bees next month.
The United States has been developing a similar project as part of a larger study of viable military uses for insects, crustaceans, and reptiles. Another British company has been testing the odor association method to train bees as well. Scientist Rebecca Nesbit said, “Bees can detect some odors that are present in parts per trillion. That’s equivalent to detecting a grain of salt in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.”
If the “sniffer bees” prove successful, Le Conte’s team could help clear the Balkans of underground explosives. Let’s just hope that the bees don’t disappear first.