The Los Alamos National Laboratory has announced this year's Distinguished Performance Awards. Among them, the "Stealthy Insect Sensor Project." Oh, go ahead and read all the sciencey prose, but here's all you need to know: They trained bees
to stick out their tongues
when they smell explosives. Here's an excerpt from the official explanation, which includes more blablabla:
Honeybees are doing more than just making honey. Laboratory scientists studied honeybees and developed a platform to use the bees in detecting explosives…
The team achieved its original goal of evaluating the proposed sensor platform and technology and greatly improved understanding of the platform's specificity and detection technology. It studied protein
expressions and isolated genetic and physiological differences in individual bee olfaction characteristics. The team studied structural units in the bees' antennae and identified biochemical and molecular mechanisms that could account for differences in the insects' training capabilities and retention capacities. The team also used Pavlovian training techniques that trigger a physical response to the smell of specific
Creating a controlled environment in which they could accurately determine the bees' capabilities, the team demonstrated that the bees' natural reaction to food – a proboscis extension reflex (PER) in which they stick out their tongues – could be used to record an unambiguous
response to scent. The bees responded with a PER when they were exposed to explosive vapors. This paradigm has been tested many times in both laboratory and field settings and is a viable alternative to using dogs or elaborate hardware to detect explosives at low concentrations.
Image: Steve Jurvetson shot this amazing macro photo. This bee is not one of the explosive-sniffing bees involved in the Los Alamos study, but
he she is sticking out his her tongue. There are many more wonderful photos in Steve Jurvetson's photo stream, and unlike bomb-bees, Steve is not known for sticking out his tongue. (thanks, Andy)
Reader comment: Grant Gould says,
The bee in question is sticking out _her_ tongue — she's by all appearances a worker bee of species apis melifera, and workers are all female.
The sex of bees has long been a source of contention, as the workers have no functioning genital organs. Aristotle, for instance, "proved" that worker bees are male (they can sting, and nature wouldn't arm a female with such a weapon), but alas for him these days we have genetics. Drone bees are haploid (only one of each chromosome, like algae) whereas queen bees are diploid (two of each chromosome, like us). Workers are diploid, and so female.
Thanks also, Ellen Bulger.
I know it is hard to believe but DARPA has been researching the use of bees to find explosives since at least 2001. I used to work at Southwest Research Institute, where they conducted this research until approximately 2004. Outside my office building, there was a a large (1 acre) green mesh facility known as the "DARPA tent," where the bees were trained to look for explosive residues. One time some of the bees got loose, and the entire facility got a global e-mail telling us not to bother the trained insects if they were encountered. If you look on google maps, you can still see the tent posts where it used to be.
Bob Michaelson says,
Isn't the problem here that they need to train the bees — and that honeybees have a fairly short lifetime (unlike explosive-sniffing dogs, for example)? How much time is required to train the bees, and how much useful sniffing life-expectancy do they have after training?
From this website: "A worker's life expectancy is only several weeks during the active summer months. However, they can live for many months during the relatively inactive winter period."
OMG more bees! Link
Ian Roberts says,
Bob Michaelson suggested that the short lifespan of a bee would be problematic in training. Luckily the training is very quick – you give them a sample smell and then feed them some sugar water. You only need to repeat this around three times for the bee to associate the smell at which point they stick their tongue out every time they smell it.