Inside the hive with Missoula's TNT-sniffing bees 

Who says you can’t teach an old bee new tricks? While certain behavioral patterns of these social insects have been well-documented (who hasn’t seen films of worker bees wiggling their butts to show which way the honey is?), researchers are discovering that the same processes that help bees locate and gather pollen might help military personnel find and defuse antipersonnel mines, which even in peacetime result in thousands of deaths and mutilations every year.

Bees collect pollen from food sources using rows of statically charged hairs. In the process, they also return to the hive with a lot of other gunk like pollutants and trace materials clinging to the plants they feed on. By affixing tiny radio transmitters to worker bees, scientists at the University in Montana, working with researchers across the country, have developed a system for tracking the flight time, direction and destination of the tagged bees. The project is part of a three-year, $3-million Department of Defense program sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency called “Controlled Biological and Biomimetic Systems.” Minus the ornate officialese, it basically consists of drafting lizards, lobsters and bugs into military service.

So how do you teach bees to land on land mines? Good old fashioned positive reinforcement, that’s how. Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M., actually held a boot camp for bees this summer; using sponges soaked in a mixture of TNT and sugar, researchers conditioned a test group to associate the scent of the explosive with a source of food. After just a few hours, the bees were flying up to 100 yards to locate the sponges.

In an actual landmine scenario, the trained, radio-equipped bees could conceivably return from routine food gathering laden with pollen and—possibly—traces of TNT, which often leaches into the soil in heavily-mined areas and turns up in plant life. Upon its return to the hive, each bee would be stripped of its pollen payload by a tiny vacuum installed just inside the hive’s entrance. The pollen would then be analyzed by mass spectrometer and researchers would compare the atomic weight of any trace elements to see if they matched up with TNT. By referring to the bees’ radio-monitored flight pattern, the test conductors would be theoretically be able to pinpoint exactly where the tainted goods came from.

Theoretically. Reached at his home last week, University of Montana entomologist Jerry J. Bromenshenk expressed some hesitation about the minesweeping bee buzz: Research is far from complete.

“At this point it’s premature to say anything one way or the other,” states Bromenshenk, whose experiments with bees and fluoride in Idaho in the early ’90s paved the way for current testing. “We’ve gotten a tremendous amount of publicity about it this year. You can look on the Internet and see a hundred articles about this kind of research. But frankly, my sense is that it was before the appropriate time to do so.”

Now if they could just teach houseflies to find car keys.

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