Police and military personnel have been using dogs to sniff out explosives for decades. According to scientists from the Defense Advanced Research Laboratory (DARPA), who have been working with honeybees since 1999, bees can actually challenge dogs when it comes to sense of smell. The honey churning buzzing insects that seek out hints of the pollen around the surroundings to make honey can just as easily detect other minute particles in the air, including traces of materials used to make bombs and harmful drugs.
"Scientists have long marveled at the honey bee's phenomenal sense of smell, which rivals that of dogs," said Tim Haarmann, who led the research, dubbed the Stealthy Insect Sensor Project. "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."
Using Pavlovian training techniques in which bees were exposed to the odour of explosives followed by a sugar water reward, researchers said they had trained bees to recognize substances ranging from dynamite and C-4 plastic explosives to the Howitzer propellant grains used in improvised explosive devices in Iraq.
In Stealthy Insect Sensor Project, scientists release the smell of chemical components used to make explosives like dynamite, C-4, drugs and liquid bombs into honeybees strapped into small tubes. The reward as the sugar water to follow, each trained bee extends its proboscis, which starts waving in the air, searching for nectar. It's this obvious response that makes this particular training method so useful. By containing the bees in an enclosed structure, researchers can use monitoring equipment to alert to the waving of the proboscises.
A highly sensitive digital camera combined with image processing and pattern-recognition software, the system will be able to pick up the bee behaviour and indicate the presence of explosives in the vicinity. The portable structure makes it ideal for testing in airports, subway stations and at roadside checkpoints in war zones like Iraq. The bees can detect the target chemicals in the air in concentrations as low as a few parts per trillion.
The scientists in DARPA have also proved the high responsiveness of honey bees to detect explosives in the presence of potentially interfering agents, such as lotions, motor oil, or insect repellent.
Haarmann also added that this amazing insects could be carried in hand-held detectors the size of a shoe box, and could be used to sniff out explosives in airports, roadside security checks, or even placed in robot bomb disposal equipment.