Sending animals to do our dirty work — specifically of the drug-sniffing, bomb-hunting variety — isn’t a novel concept by any means. But while an animal bomb-sniffing squad might conjure up the image of a noble K9 dog, Croatians are now depending on a very different, perhaps not quite as loveable bomb fiend: the common honeybee.
Because though the Balkan wars may have ended several decades ago, there’s still over 1200sqkm of territory just brimming with unexploded mines. The European Union, which will finally call Croatia its own come July 1, understandably has a bit of problem with this. Since the start of the Balkan war in 1991, it’s estimated that around 2500 people have died from land mine explosions, and the 90,000 mines scattered around the country were placed at random and without any sort of map.
So Nikola Kezic, a professor at Zagreb University and honeybee behaviour expert, has been working with a team of researchers to bend the bees to our bomb-hunting will. Honeybees, conveniently, have a perfect sense of smell — all the better to track down delicious nectar with. Making use of this (figurative) nose that far surpasses our own, the scientists have been drizzling a team of bees’ food with TNT particles. This way, the bees begin to associate the smell of real, live explosives with their next meal.
Apparently, it’s been working. To test whether or not the bees were able to retain their newfound knowledge, the researchers set up multiple feeding points, only sprinkling the explosives on a few. And just as Kezic hypothesized, the bees generally avoided the pure sugar water, preferring to go towards the now familiar, TNT-seasoned batches instead. But their work isn’t over yet. According to Kezic:
It is not a problem for a bee to learn the smell of an explosive, which it can then search. You can train a bee, but training their colony of thousands becomes a problem.
The TNT itself presents another obstacle, since its smell tends to evaporate relatively quickly, leaving only trace amounts to act as the bees’ guide. The final controlled test will come when they send the bees off into actual (marked) minefields. Of course, the bees will never be able to uncover every single mine lying around, but by sending them off into supposedly de-mined minefields and tracking their movement with heat-seeking cameras, they could prove invaluable in uncovering the missed explosives. And save countless lives in the process. [Associated Press]