Neils Colloquia on Innovative Science (NCIS)

Friday, Nov. 11, at 3:30 PM in NSC 234. Join us for refreshments in the NSC lobby at 3:10 PM.

"Honey Bees: Flying Chemical Detectors"


Dr. Garon Smith, Department of Chemistry, University of Montana


Domestic honeybees (Apis mellifera) offer the potential of using free-flying organisms to search wide areas for the presence of toxic contaminants, explosives, landmines and dead bodies. As bees perform normal foraging, they may bring back residues of toxic substances that are bioavailable in a “passive search mode”. This will be illustrated through the use of honeybees to find hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), toxic heavy metals and radionuclides in passive search experiments at Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD. A more powerful use of the honeybees is gained by conditioning them with scented sugar-syrups to conduct an “active search” for compounds of interest to the military. Video clips will demonstrate how the training is accomplished as well as present results of conditioning trials that show honeybees serve as real-time detectors for the TNT-family explosives at low pptr to ppq levels. This use is analogous to search dogs, except that a colony of bees can be trainedin just a few hours, does not require a leash and will not set off any mines. During DOD-supervised field trials at the Southwest Research Institute in SanAntonio, TX, honeybees yielded a 98.7% detection rate of plumes in the 0.7 – 13.0 ppt range with less than 1% false positive and false negative responses. Subsequent tests have pushed thresholds an order of magnitude lower. Bees will be shown as they are tracked by lidar techniques at an experimental mine field at Ft. Leonard Wood, MO. A plot of bee densities across the test grid was essentially identical to those derived from traditional instrumental techniques. I will introduce our newest use of honeybees –searching for buried bodies by olfaction.