Abandoned land mines have been called “the worst form of pollution on earth.” They kill up to 20,000 people every year, and according to one recent study it will take 450 years to find and clear all of them. That estimate might be too optimistic, because new mines can be laid as fast as the old ones are cleared. Ridding the world of land mines sounds like a Sisyphean task of epic proportions. Or is it? Enter DARPA (the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency) and the humble bee.
Bees and Chemicals
Using bees to detect land mines has its roots in decades-long research at the University of Montana, conducted by research professor Dr. Jerry J. Bromenshenk. Dr. Bromenshenk and his team have found that bees are expert sample-takers. They collect everything: air, water, vegetation, and chemicals in gaseous, liquid and particulate forms. A single colony can generate up to hundreds of thousands of flights every day, each bee returning to the hive with his collection.
Bees, DARPA, and Odors of Interest
More recently, Dr. Bromenshenk and his team began focusing on “odors of interest” under a DARPA contract. The team was able to document that the bees’ acute sense of smell enables them to function as fine-tuned, highly accurate vapor detectors for chemicals that are present in explosives, bombs, and landmines. Under certain conditions they can detect concentrations at approximately 30 parts per trillion, with the potential to reach an even lower threshhold.
How to Make a Bee Find a Land Mine
Like mine-sniffing dogs and other mammals, bees can be trained with a food reward. Within a matter of hours, they can learn to associate designated odors with food. Dr. Bromenshenk’s team found that bees will detect a vapor plume and follow it to the source. By comparing the density of bees in different areas over time, observers can pinpoint the likely sources. Lasers, radar and other new developments in surveillance technology can enable researchers to track and count practically every single bee.
Bees to the Rescue
Aside from their accuracy, bees have a number of strong advantages when it comes to land mine detection. As lightweight hoverers, they can cover an area without accidently discharging a mine. They are much cheaper than high-tech equipment and they are much easier to train than dogs and other mammals, lending themselves to use in areas where funds for mine removal are thin (one leading mine removal organization, HALO Trust, has stopped using dogs due to lack of consistency). Amazingly, bees from one hive will recruit others, so only one trained hive is needed to start surveilling a large area.
Last year the previous administration halted plans to move the tests overseas – a crucial step needed to explore conditions in actual minefields. With a new administration dedicated to more federal funds for scientific research, there’s a chance that the research will resume soon, and negotions are underway on arrangements for a new round of trials.
Colony Collapse Disorder: To the Rescue of the Bees
The mine-detecting potential of bees adds another dimension of urgency to the mystery of colony collapse disorder, which has been decimating bee populations around the globe. Changing the bees — introducing hardier species or using genetic modification to produce a resistant species — is one avenue being explored. Bromenshenk, a leading researcher in the phenomenon, has been studying colony collapse disorder from early on, and University of Montana researchers have been investigating a number of possible causes including Nosema ceranae, a single-celled fungus.
Image: WanderingSolesPhotography on flickr.