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Honeybees Trained To Sniff Out Landmines

From Croatia, a very unique use of bees:

A team of Croatian researchers are training honeybees to sniff out unexploded mines that still pepper the Balkans.

Nikola Kezic, a professor in the Department of Agriculture at Zagreb University, has been exploring using bees to find landmines since 2007. Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and other countries from former Yugoslavia still have around 250,000 buried mines which were left there during the wars of the early 90s. Since the end of the war more than 300 people have been killed in Croatia alone by the explosives, including 66 de-miners.

Tracking down the mines can be extremely costly and dangerous. However, by training bees — which are able to detect odours from 4.5 kilometres away — to associate the smell of TNT with sugar can create an affective way of identifying the locations of mines.

Kezic leads a multimillion-pound programme sponsored by the EU, called Tiramisu, to detect landmines across the continent. His team has been working in a net tent filled with the insects and several feeding posts containing a sugar solution — some of which contain traces of TNT. The bees — which have already been trained to associate food with the smell of TNT — gather mainly at those feeding posts containing TNT. The movements of the bees are tracked from afar using thermal cameras. Bees have the advantage of being extremely small and so don’t run the risk of setting off the explosives in the same way that trained mammals such as dogs or rats do.

The research is similar to experiments conducted by Darpa in the US, where bees were mounted with tiny radio tags so their location could be accurately tracked.

The research is ongoing, but once the team is confident in the bees’ landmine-seeking abilities, they will release the creatures in areas that have been de-mined to see whether the field has been successfully swept by humans.

If it works it could become a nearly completely  safe way to find the tens of thousands of landmines that lay waiting around the world.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. anjin-san says:

    Seems that the bees, like most critters, are quite a bit brighter that human beings tend to give them credit for being…

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  2. PogueMahone says:

    I am a commercial beekeeper with 20+ years of experience. A few thoughts….

    I have no doubt that if one “trains” bees to associate the smell of explosive materials with sugar, then they will be able to track them. However, there are few problems that would make the application questionable.

    1) Worker bees have a short lifespan. Queen bees can live for 3-4 years, but your typical worker bee has a lifespan of about 3 weeks during the summer and 4-6 months during the winter. So any program must constantly be training bees to the association. Maybe they’ve found an easy and cost effective way to do this, but I can’t imagine how.

    2) Worker bees will only seek out sugar as a substitute for floral nectar when it is unavailable. In other words, if there is a bloom going on, then bees will ignore any and all sugar solutions. In a practical sense, if… say… there was a clover bloom going on at a time that you want the bees to seek out the smell of sugar, good luck on making them do that.

    3) That stated, more power to them. Given the very real concern over colony collapse disorder (CCD) and how our food production is tied to the existence of honeybees, then maybe finding a military application for honeybees will finally give those in power to appropriate enough funding to save our bees as well as pursuing legislating to control neonicontinoids ( the new family of pesticides widely believed – and I believe is most credible as opposed to earlier theories associating CCD to cell phone use, etc. – to be associated with CCD).

    It seems to me that if we were to somehow tie funding for bee research to national defense, then it is much better than relying on the pittance that research is getting now.

    Save the Environment: Ptff… F*ck that. Dirty Hippies.
    Fund the Pentagon: Well hell… break out the credit card!!

    Best of luck to those wanting to use honeybees for military purposes… if at least to get funding and awareness to saving honeybees… You know… for food and stuff.

    Cheers.

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  3. anjin-san says:

    @PogueMahone

    Beekeeping sounds like rewarding work. I love bees, but my mother is allergic, and I had a pretty large reaction the last time I was stung, so I keep a respectful distance. Luckily, animals see to know for the most part who their friends are.

    Bee colony collapse is pretty alarming. Thanks Monsanto!

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  4. Franklin says:

    I was hoping a beekeeper would chime in, thanks PogueMahone. I was indeed curious about this “training”. The article is a bit light on how this is achieved. Is it possible that after several generations of bees that perhaps the whole colony would somehow “learn” this TNT/sugar association and automatically pass it onto new generations? In other words, can “old” worker bees teach it to “young” worker bees?

    Or alternately, could they be bred to make this association? Meaning, it’s literally in their DNA to search for TNT? And those that don’t, die off?

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