By Tina Casey, Clean Technica.com
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
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 threshold.
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 accidentally 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 negotiations 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 —
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 >Nosemaceranae, a single-celled fungus.
The message brought to you by Bee Culture, The
Magazine Of American Beekeeping