Bees & Bombs: Can bees really detect explosives?


Laboratory experts at Los Alamos National Laboratory successfully managed to train bomb-sniffing bees. According to the scientists, this was possible thanks to a method for training the common honey bee in detecting the explosives used in bombs.

Los Alamos scientists established tactics to exploit the honey bee’s olfactory sense. They explained that they could train bees to have similar reaction in detecting explosives as they do for nectar, (probosci’s extension reflex, they stick out their tongue). In other words, they could be trained to respond to a particular scent.

Thus, the Pavlovian training techniques, often used for bee research, was used to train these minuscule insects to give a positive detection response by means of the probosci’s extension reflex, when they were in contact with vapors from TNT, C4, TATP explosives.

Tim Haarmann, principal investigator for the Stealthy Insect Sensor Project, said, “Scientists have long marveled at the honey bee’s phenomenal sense of smell, which rivals that of dogs.”

“But previous attempts to harness and understand this ability were scientifically unproven. With more knowledge, our team thought we could make use of this ability,” he added.

Another similar experiment was carried out by researchers at the University of Cologne who have successfully trained bees to differentiate between heroin and cocaine.

Here again, the experts claim the insects could eventually replace sniffer-dogs. Thomas Nowotny is Professor of Informatics at the University Of Sussex, explained how bees could be trained: “I suspect it’s classical conditioning. Where the bees extend their proboscis [tongue] in response to one odour and not in response to another.

“They have been found to do this to all kinds of varieties of odours. They train the bees, they give them an odour and some sugar water with it [as a reward].

“Then they learn to use the proboscis to try and lick the sugar water, and later you give just the odour, and they will try to lick.

The good thing about the bees using their tongues is that humans can see it, so they know when the insects are near something they recognise.

“They have the receptors to do explosives and illegal substances, so it doesn’t surprise me that they can smell it [drugs].”