Trained sniffer honeybees may soon become indispensable for port and airport security. A wondrously new invention- cheap, lightning fast and easy to use- is being rolled out by the UK company Inscentinel, who, in collaboration with the UK's Office for Security and Counter Terrorism, have produced a prototype detector the size of a small vacuum cleaner, the Vasor136. Standing for "Volatile Analysis by Specific Odour Recognition", the innovative technological application allows bulk cargo screening using specially trained bees- and could change the way port security is carried out.
That the olfactory senses of bees rival those of sniffer dogs has been known for some time. Sniffer bees have now been trained to detect substances such as explosives and drugs- and some human and plant diseases. Inscentinel has simply applied this knowledge remarkably well. As Head of Research Mathilde Briens explains: "It all revolves around training and reward, a classical Pavlovian conditioning of the honeybees. We expose the bees to the odour, say the smell of TNT explosive, for a few seconds and simultaneously give the bees a sugar syrup reward. After 4 or 5 exposures the bees associate the odour with the reward."
Sniffer bees " can detect extremely low concentrations of volatile compounds - parts per trillion for some chemicals - with very high specificity. This makes them ideal sensors to detect trace vapours, with applications ranging from screening for explosives and drugs to medical diagnostics," an analysis says.
Honeybees are trained at Inscentinel to associate drugs and explosives with sugar water, and, eventually, to 'stick out their tongue'- technically, the Proboscis Extension Reflex (PER) - when exposed to specific stimuli. After the training, the bee exhibits the PER whenever it is exposed to explosives, and fast- it can detect the presence of the substance in six seconds. The Vasor136 contains a 'cassette' of trained sniffer bees being monitored by an infrared sensor. The results are displayed in a simple 'Yes/No' format on a coloured square LCD screen.
Besides their acute sense of smell, trained sniffer honeybees have many other advantages over other methods of detection of explosives or drugs. Compared to sniffer dogs, for example, they are quick to train, inexpensive to keep and do not take up space. They are also in plentiful supply- a beehive can contain up to 60,000 bees and a single beekeeper can manage 20 hives.
Inscentinel says that it can train 500 sniffer bees in just five hours, and the Vasor136 can be used by just about anybody. In contrast, just one sniffer dog takes six months to train and requires a special handler. Another major advantage is that sniffer bees can be used around the clock. And don't forget the cost- dog handler team costs in the US run to $118,000 in the first year and $80,000 in the second. The US Federal Government spends $48 million dollars a year on 600 trained dogs and their handlers.
"I have no doubt that the bees will perform brilliantly," says Inscentinel CEO Ivan Hoo," who is looking to run field tests soon. "After all, sniffer bees were not developed only in the last decade but over millennium to achieve their level of sensitivity."