Gizmodo reports that researchers at Zagreb University in Croatia have begun to train honey bees to detect land mines left over from the conflict in the 1990s. Researchers have sprinkled TNT on honey bees’ food source, essentially training them to detect explosive materials that they associate with food. This project is not without it’s challenges. Croatian researchers reports:
It is not a problem for a bee to learn the smell of an explosive, which it can then search. You can train a bee, but training their colony of thousands becomes a problem.
This research has inspired North American research institutes. Under a $3 million program, scientists and engineers at various research and development centers across the United States have been working with honeybees and developing technologies to turn them into information collectors wearing tracking devices that may help pinpoint mines within a designated area. Engineers from University of Montana intend to fit 50 bees with the radio tags and release them into a minefield to see if the combination of insect and technology works. The tags, no larger than half a grain of rice, will be attached to the backs of the bees. Scientists will track the bees using technology. Each time a bee leaves the hive, scientists will know its direction of flight, points where the bees landed and flight time. Inside the hive, special sensors will scan for chemicals brought back on the bees’ bodies. Scientists believe the tracking information, combined with the chemical analysis, will help pinpoint the locations of mines.
This is certainly exciting news in the international campaign against land mines, which injure, maim and kill thousands of people every year, many of whom are children. However, for those of us who love honey bees and work to support their well-being, we might question the impact of potentially contaminating a hive with chemicals such as TNT. Another question is whether the hive can survive if foragers are seeking nectar, but only find landmines.