beez Croatian researchers use honeybees to sniff out landmines

The honeybee is well known for its keen sense of smell, and now researchers are trying to make use of that ability by training them to find explosives. This research is an effort to track down and destroy unexploded landmines in Croatia left over from the Yugoslav Wars that took place the early 1990s.

Croatia is littered with unexploded landmines left over from the Yugoslav Wars that took place in the early 1990s.  Finding those unexploded landmines is a daunting task and is dangerous even for those trained in finding them.  Now entomologists are looking to the humble honeybee and finding that the insect may be what they’ve been looking for.

Entomologists have long known about the honeybees’ keen sense of smell and their abilities in tracking down and finding the most remote food source.  Now Croatian scientists are devising a way in which they can teach the honeybee how to seek out explosives. 

A Nikola Kezic who is one of the main researchers in Croatia studying the bee is literally training them to seek out the scent of TNT.  The process the researchers have chosen is one that trainers have used for years with dogs by offering a reward.  In the case of the bee, the reward is sugar water when they detect the TNT.  

The Croatian entomologists knew that American scientists experimented with using the honeybee to find explosives, but Croatia is the first country to see if the honeybee could detect TNT.  One problem with TNT is due to its nature and how its smell does not linger as long as other types of explosives.

While dogs have been used for ages to detect landmines, the animal can set off the mines with their own weight.  Honeybees also have a more sensitive sense of smell than a dog, and unlike a dog, a honeybee’s existence is devoted entirely to searching out a food source and bringing it back to the hive.  In theory the honeybee would also be far more reliable since dogs often tire or become bored with searching.

"We are not saying that we will discover all the mines on a minefield, but the fact is that it should be checked if a minefield is really de-mined," Kezic said. "It has been scientifically proven that there are never zero mines on a de-mined field, and that's where bees could come in."

When the Yugoslav Wars began in 1991 about 2500 people died from the landmines and it is estimated that nearly 100 thousand landmines were laid down in the region.  The Croatian government’s de-mining bureau says that since war's end in 1995, 316 people have been killed, 66 of which were de-miners.

Source: Associate Press