Honeybees can smell TB

New Zealand biologists believe that honeybees can sense the faint floral odor on the breath of people infected with tuberculosis, and are trying to find a way to train bees to help them diagnose TB:

“When we tested them with the tuberculosis odours we found the bees can still smell it down to parts per billion,” says Max Suckling.

Christchurch zoologists are training bees to associate the smell of the disease with a sweet treat and to stick out their tongues when it's present.

Worldwide new TB infections occur at a rate of one per second. Right now it's diagnosed medically by expensive tests and with the disease being most common in poverty stricken areas, using bees instead could make a real difference.

Bees help in the battle against tuberculosis (Thanks, Gnat!)

(Image: Honeybee on Snakeroot, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from dendroica's photostream)


  1. Isn’t the TB skin test cheap, largely accurate, and widely available?  This sounds like an utterly ridiculous solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

    1. The TB skin test isn’t accurate at all, that’s the problem. It also doesn’t work if you’ve been vaccinated for TB in the past (it will return a false positive.)

    2. Actually that just tests to see if you have developed the antibodies that result from being exposed to TB.  It does not test for an active infection.  

    3. Isn’t the TB skin test cheap, largely accurate, and widely available?

      That depends on what you consider “cheap” and whether you live in a third-world country or not.

    4. No, no and not particularly. 

      I was exposed to TB working in a medical centre once (a rare condition in Australia). I had to undertake 2 blood tests and a chest x-ray, all months after the exposure because it takes a long while for symptoms to show up.

      If bees can smell it down to parts per billion then perhaps they can detect it earlier than other testing methods. 

    5. Isn’t the TB skin test cheap, largely accurate, and widely available? This sounds like an utterly ridiculous solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

      When I worked in healthcare, I had to get a PPD done every six months.  My 10,000 co-workers from the Phillipines, on the other hand, had to get chest x-rays every few years because false positives were the norm.  If you haven’t been in a hospital lately, you might not have noticed that much of the staff comes from Asia.

    6.  The TB skin test, known as a PPD, does not test for active TB. Rather, it tests for TB antibodies. These antibodies could be present if you have TB, have been exposed to TB, or have had the TB vaccine. If a PPD is positive when read 48-72 hours after subcutaneous injection, one is then sent for a chest x-ray to look for lesions. If that is positive, then a sputum culture is done. This culture can take up to 2 months to confirm active or inactive TB.

      This whole process is both lengthy and potentially expensive, especially because the highest incidence of TB is in poor countries. It would definitely be advantageous to get a cheap and instant answer from bees, though the practicality of it is questionable.

  2. I just got tested last week; the red mark on my forearm still slowly fading away…

    I have had ‘false positives’ in the past: mostly due to my fair skin… and medical personnel who didn’t really know what they were looking at.  Caused me a fair amount of headache I must say.

    But, upon reflection; still preferable to bees flying in my mouth.

    1. I’d rather have a bee flying around in my mouth than a honey-badger or a dog.

      (I know that bees are also claimed to have a more accurate sense of smell than dogs by firms training them to do explosives sniffing at airports)

      1. Honey badgers n’dogs flying around in one’s mouth, well, don’t knock it until you try it. 

        But yes, you’re right – bees are claimed to have a more accurate sense of smell than dogs. I guess this just depends on which being is more appropriate for the application :)

  3. I got a PPD skin test recently and the area became red and weird. The doctor said if I ever had to be tested again, she’d do an X-ray of my chest, to avoid whatever allergy I apparently had to the other thing. But if it’s now a choice between X-rays and bees…

  4. Teach killer bees to sniff it out, release them into wild, let them sting and kill the infected before it spreads. Suddenly, eradication!

  5. Homer: Bart, you’re going to be tested for TB.
    Bart: But I’m afraid of needles!
    Dr Nick: I suggest you be tested immediately or we’ll have to use other methods.
    Homer: Like what? You’ll use dogs, or bees, or dogs with
    bees in their mouths and when they bark they shoot bees at you?
    Well, go ahead — do your test!

  6. While animal sensors may not be reliable enough as definitive tests for TB, they are certainly accurate enough for screening applications. Bart Weetjen’s org Apopo uses the gambian pouched rat to sniff out landmines, and to do large-scale screening of potential TB patients:

    In situations where TB rates are high, and test kits are scarce and difficult to get, these animals cut down on the need for test kits by a massive amount, and they are much more easily maintained than the comparable lab equipment (Wouldn’t it be cool if you could take a gas chromatograph for a walk at the park :)

  7. I was under the impression that bees only live for a few weeks… Would they have to be continually training new generations of TB bees? I’d vote on the research investment in dogs instead.

    1. I’m guessing it would be more like an evolutionary training project. Bees that show signs of working out would get separated from the ones that don’t until eventually they’ve got an amazing breed of super-TB sniffing bees.

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