Studious little insects, they are. Pollinating plants of all kinds and providing us with much of the food we eat. Protecting plants against pests. Creating delicious honey for our enjoyment. Organizing themselves into sophisticated colonies and formulating ways of arriving at group decisions to do what's in the best interest of their colony. Using the "waggle dance" to communicate with other bees. It seems they also wear suits to work, have furniture in their tiny bee houses, and are each assigned a different position at the corporation that employs all bees. I saw that in a movie once, so it must be true. Amidst it all, scientists have found yet another use for this busy little insect.
It turns out that bees also have an extremely keen sense of smell, and can pick up scents that canines can't. And because of this unique talent, scientists are currently working on ways for bees and wasps to hunt down hidden explosives, screen luggage at the airport, or sniff out trace amounts of drugs. Wasps are 74 times more sensitive to fungi than the current mechanical devices, and 94 times more sensitive to plant odors.
So it's possible they could be trained even to snuff out anthrax spores or other potential biological attacks. They might be used to detect old land mines, which in many parts of the world maim and kill thousands of children each year. Just release tens of thousands of bees in a field, and they should swarm towards the hidden devices and form a bee-blanket that pinpoints a mine's exact location, so that it can be safely destroyed.
In case you might be contemplating how one would go about training a bee, they are trained in the same manner as Pavlovian dogs. The bees are taught to associate a certain scent with a sweet reward, so that whenever they detect the scent they are conditioned towards, say a small amount of TNT or trace amounts of drugs, they will swarm towards it. Follow the swarm of bees, and you find the loot. "The general premise is, if it smells, we believe we can train our bees to detect it," says chemist Robert Wingo of Los Alamos Stealthy Insect Sensor Project.
I thought airport security lines couldn't possibly get any more stressful or invasive. I was wrong. Just wait until passengers are forced to walk the bumblebee gauntlet. Security officials say they are only eying the insects for use in detecting bombs in luggage or at the post office, but you know some NSA official somewhere is thinking about it, especially after all the recent fears of shoe bombs and toothpaste explosives. The thing I like most about this story: go get your kids and tell them that bees are being trained by the National Security Administration to hunt down bombs and fight terrorists. They'll think you're so full of $%?#, and yet it's totally true. Crazy 'ole world we live in.
1. Susan Gaidos, "Sting operation," Science News, vol. 174, no. 7, pp.
17-19, Sept. 27, 2008