Sniffer Honey Bees Trained To Detect Bombs

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Meet the latest weapon in the war on terror – the humble honey bee .Specially trained sniffer honey bees may be coming to an airport near you soon, thanks to a successful new prototype that is about the size of a handheld vacuum cleaner. The Vasor136, developed by Hertfordshire Company Inscentinel, and partially funded by the Home Office OSCT (Office for Security and Counter Terrorism), is creating a buzz after successful tests with the government

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Training the bees is simply a matter of bribing them with sugary treats. Mathilde Briens, Head of R&D at Inscentinel, explains: “It all revolves around training and reward, a classical Pavlovian conditioning of the honeybees. We expose the bees to the odour, say the smell of TNT explosive, for a few seconds and simultaneously give the bees a sugar syrup reward. After 4 or 5 exposures the bees associate the odour with the reward…”

“…Consequently, if the bees are exposed to an air sample containing the substance the bees are trained to smell, the odour elicits a Proboscis Extension Reflex response – the bees stick out their tongue in expectation of food. The whole bee training process takes a matter of a few hours; it is very quick”

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The device holds six cassettes of six bees. The bees are kept in optimum conditions in a filtered airstream until they reach the environment to be tested, e.g. near a suspected car bomb, or luggage at Heathrow The female worker bees are gently restrained in tiny cartridges or bee holders (think of a racehorse stall where the bee’s head pokes out), complete with heating . A small fan draws in the air and the bees respond to the presence of the explosive, sticking out their tongues and breaking the beam of an optical sensor…

In addition to explosives the scientists have been able to train bees to detect food products quality such as very early stages of fruit spoilage, decay odours or counterfeit products. Preliminary studies have shown that the insects could be trained to pick up key chemical markers to diagnose diseases such as tuberculosis. The bees can also detect the smell emitted by the dry rot fungus, as it breaks down timber, and so can warn building engineers long before beams start to collapse

In the natural world, foraging bees are very effective at isolating and following the scent of a favourite nectar-bearing flower. This ability is central to the insect’s survival and the bees have to learn many different odours to locate desirable pollen and nectar. The bee’s antennae are densely covered with individual sensors. This natural hardwiring explains why the bees are so easy to train to an odour. Wherever they are working, Inscentinel always uses local honeybees, which are best adapted to local conditions

After a research and development project partially funded by the Home Office, the company has also demonstrated the new device to commercial companies in the US, and is seeking investment partners to take forward the final development of the technology



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