Bzz Bzz – Boom

UM researchers train bees to sniff out land mines
The Associated Press. September 24, 2002 12:06 AM Eastern Time

Three University of Montana scientists admit it sounds funny, but they say their trained honeybees can detect land mines.

Jerry Bromenshenk has studied bees as pollution sensors and environmental sensors for the past 30 years. As odd as it may sound, honeybees are easier to train, harder working and more accurate than bomb-sniffing dogs, he says.

“What makes them so effective is that they have a very refined sense of smell,” Bromenshenk said.

Honeybees also live in packs of thousands, cover ground more quickly than dogs, and learn their new task in a matter of days, he said.

The first step is to distract the bees from their natural instinct for foraging by offering them easy-to-find food, Bromenshenk said. Then the bees can be taught to seek out a particular odor – such as the chemicals used in land mines – by rewarding them with more food for finding the scent and hovering over it, he said.

Bromenshenk has the help of UM scientist Colin Henderson, who conditions the bees to a certain odor, and UM software expert Robert Seccomb, who tracks the insects with special equipment.

For two years the bees have been finding simulated land mines that smell like the real thing. So far the bees have earned high marks, and the insects have a near-perfect track record, Henderson said.

“We know bees can sense vapors at levels dogs can’t get to,” Bromenshenk said. “If they can smell it, they will be as good or better than dogs at finding it.”

The bees have proven their talents to scientists beyond the UM campus, but they still have to be tested in a life and death scenario, Bromenshenk said. For now the research will focus on detecting land mines because of a tremendous need for safe detection, he said.

About 110 million unexploded land mines are planted in countries around the world, Bromenshenk said, citing United Nations statistics. Each year about 26,000 people are killed or maimed by the hidden bombs, he added.

“It’s a huge, huge problem,” he said. The mines are a risk to people who are trying to remove them, and they also take valuable agricultural land out of production, he said. “People starve because of this problem.”

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