Nose for danger: Bees trained to detect unexploded mines
science: Success of trials as bees are trained to detect scent of explosives which leads to finding mines in former Yugoslavia
Trained bees have been successfully used for the first time to find mines in a former Yugoslavian warzone, a Scottish scientist has revealed.
The honey bees led mine clearance teams to unexploded ordnance in Croatia after they were trained to hone in on the smell of explosives.
Dr Ross Gillander of St Andrews University helped design equipment which detects if bees are returning to the hive with tiny traces of explosives.
Once confirmed, footage from drones was used to pinpoint the spot at which the bees picked up the traces.
The bees could prove more effective than sniffer dogs in some circumstances because they can work for longer and are cheaper to use. A dog’s performance can also be adversely affected by its treatment.
The promising early results of the ongoing trials in Croatia hold out hope that more of the millions of abandoned mines around the world could be cleared up more quickly, sparing thousands of people from being killed or injured.
The use of bees to detect explosives is being researched by academics in Scotland and Croatia.
Real-world tests started in Croatia in November, funded by Nato Science for Peace and Security, and using bees from local hives.
Dr Gillander confirmed the bees had found mines and other explosives lost during Croatia’s four-year struggle for independence from Yugoslavia which started in 1991.
The project borrows standard Apismellisera Carnica honeybees which are trained over two days by placing sugar syrup on top of TNT.
“Basically we teach them by a version of reward like you do with dogs,” said Dr Gillander.
“The bees fly out of their hive to go about their normal day-to-day job of finding pollen but instead of finding pollen they find explosives. It’s the sugar syrup which draws them out.
“The training takes two days and is much faster and more efficient than training a dog. However, after three days the bees realise that they aren’t getting reward from the TNT and as a result are disinterested in it and look for other things.
“After three days we have to re-train the honeybees to detect the explosives.”
Dr Gillander, a physicist, designed the equipment that tests the bees for explosives when they return to the hive.
The bees go through a canvas-type material which is then exposed to light.
“A drop in light emission (like a light dimmer switch) confirms the presence of explosives,” said Dr Gillander.
The bees fly out of their hive to go about their normal dayto-day job of finding pollen, but instead of finding pollen they find explosives
Left: The equipment used to test for traces of explosives on the returning bees. Above: Dr Ross Gillander of St Andrews University helped design the special equipment.