As if it’s not enough that bees provide honey, wax, ecosystem balance, and tragic endings to Macaulay Culkin movies, researchers in Croatia are using the insects to locate the unexploded landmines that litter the Balkan landscape. They don’t call it a “hive mind” for nothing.
The program, led by honeybee behaviorist Nikola Kezic, trains bees by feeding them sugar water laced with small quantities of TNT. I actually didn’t realize that bees had a sense of smell per se, but apparently they have not only a sense of smell but a PERFECT sense of smell, according to Kezic. So they quickly learn to associate the smell of explosives with the presence of food.
In theory, this means that swarms of trained bees will throng to areas with hidden unexploded mines, allowing officials to dispose of them before they accidentally take off someone’s leg. In practice, it’s a little hard to do this thing at scale. “It is not a problem for a bee to learn the smell of an explosive, which it can then search,” Kezic says, “but training their colony of thousands becomes a problem.” And a few bees alighting on a land mine, while the rest of their compatriots visit innocuous flowers nearby, does not make for a very effective detection tool.
Still, it’s a good idea if Kezic can pull it off. Why design new tech to find landmines when nature has already built you hard-carapaced, networked sniffing machines that can fly out of danger in an explosion?