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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Column: Madeline McCurry-Schmidt

The “Stealthy Insect Sensor Project” is the kind of research that makes America look either brilliant or insane.

Scientists have trained honeybees to detect explosives in an effort to protect soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. I vote brilliant. Bees are cheaper to train and more discrete in the field than bomb-sniffing dogs. If the project works it’ll be the ultimate sting.

Dr. Robert Wingo from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) spoke to a crowd of UC Davis entomologists on Oct. 21 regarding his bee/bomb project. He said the Los Alamos researchers used the natural associative learning behavior of honeybees to train them to detect TNT and C4 explosives.

Bees and other insects don’t have noses, but they do have very powerful chemo receptors on their antennae. Wingo and his colleagues stuck honeybees in snug, little harnesses to keep the bees stationary and protect themselves from stings. (Wingo said he still got a lot of stings during the process, though.)

Then the scientists blew puffs of TNT or C4 chemicals at the bees, and the bees would “smell” the scent with their chemo receptors. Immediately afterwards, they’d give the bees the treat of sugar water on a Q-tip. The bees would stick their tongues out and think, “Yum! TNT smell equals treat!” After repeating the process over and over again, the bees would stick out their tongues after smelling the chemicals, but before getting the treat. The tongue reflex works as an indicator of TNT or C4 nearby.

Wingo calls honeybees (Apis mellifera) “nature’s rugged robots” for their single-minded goal of taking care of the hive. The field bees in the hive have antennae that have evolved to find the best flowers with the best nectar for the hive. LANL scientists simply used those natural skills to get the bees to associate explosive smells with the sugar water “nectar.” Hearing him talk, I could tell that Wingo had real respect for the bees. He mentioned how bees sting enemies to protect the hive, willing to “sacrifice themselves for the collective.”

It fits, then, that honeybees would belong in the field with U.S. soldiers. LANL has designed a special box that blows outside air over five bees in their harnesses. A camera watches the bees and alerts a computer if the bees are sticking their tongues out. Wingo said that when soldiers use bomb-sniffing dogs and detection machines in their work, terrorists know they are close to getting caught. It’s better to get away from the car bomb or I.E.D. before the terrorist becomes suspicious that the soldiers know it’s an explosive. The little bee-boxes are a quiet way to detect danger.

There are, however, limitations to the honeybee plan. The bees are only alive for an average of two weeks, and their memories of explosive smells and sugar water must be refreshed every 24 hours. There have been false-positives in the trials due to natural fragrances like watermelon-scented lotion. The bees’ antennae receptors are almost as effective as dogs’ noses, but not quite.

“I think dogs are probably better at detection, but they’re much more expensive,” Wingo said.

The bees have the advantage of being cheap to produce and easy to train. Before you see bees in Iraq on the nightly news, Wingo and his colleagues must convince the military that their insect sensors are effective and efficient.

In one demonstration, military investors were going to dinner with the LANL team. They were having chocolate cake for dessert, so before dinner, the LANL folks trained some bees to stick out their tongues at the smell of chocolate cake. The demonstration worked (though the bees didn’t get any cake). Wingo said bees could also help detect narcotics for police departments or explosives for airport security.

Not all bees are created equal. The next step in the project is to breed bees that live longer, stick out their tongues better and have better memories.

“There are smart bees and dumb bees,” Wingo said.

The Government Breeds Smart Bees. Now that does sound insane.

MADELINE MCCURRY-SCHMIDT would like to credit her grandpa, Max, for the awesome idea of having bees drink C4, then fly over to terrorists and blow them up. To send her more amazing ideas, e-mail her at memschmidt@ucdavis.edu.

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