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Bees in a Box Buzz Bombs

About a decade ago, scientists at a national laboratory, in partnership with the University of Montana, were working on a project to "re-train" bees to respond to the chemical signature of chemical and biological weapons. These were the days between the first War in the Persian Gulf and our current battles against terrorism. The concept was to replace the bees’ reactions to pheromones and have them instead, “make a bee line” to the chemical or biological weapons. Suspecting that Hussein had his chemical and biological weapons in underground bunkers to avoid detection by inspectors, the idea was to send a swarm of specially trained bees to locate the sites.

In an outgrowth of this earlier research University of Montana researchers demonstrated the use of insects to detect pollution and land mines . A related program, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), demonstrated that bees were trained in less than two hours using sugar-water rewards to condition a hive of honeybees to eschew flowers and instead hunt for 2,4-dinitrotoluene, or DNT, a residue in TNT and other explosives, in concentrations as tiny as a few thousandths of a part per trillion.
In tests of 12 trained bee colonies in 2001 at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, one to two bees an hour were seen flying around uncontaminated controls, while "we were getting 1,200 bees an hour on the targets," said Philip J. Rodacy, a chemist in the explosives technology group at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque. Sandia, the Southwest institute and the University of Montana are among many institutions contributing to the research.

It is now coming to light that Los Alamos National Laboratory using previous research performed by UK-based company called Inscentinel have transformed regular honey bees into bomb detectors. Apparently when the bees come into contact with explosives, their feeding tubs (proboscises) extend. The bees were re-trained as part of a program called the Stealthy Insect Sensor Project during which they received sugar water when they were exposed to dynamite, C-4, and the Howitzer propellant grains used in IEDs in Iraq. The training takes no more than ten minutes.

The process involves placing the bees in a box, a “sniffer box,” into which air is sucked. If explosives are present, the bees will simultaneously extend their proboscises, and a video camera will detect the movement and sound an alarm. Whether the use of these bee boxes is practical or not is still a question. More about the Stealthy Insect Sensor Project can be found in Sniffer bees set to snare suicide bombers

There are a number of similar programs being pursued using insects. It is also now being considered to use swarms of bees to detect and identify Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) which present a critical vulnerability for American military troops abroad and is an emerging danger for civilians worldwide. The point of this is that in our Nation’s efforts to defeat terrorism, even some unconventional methods are being explored. Examining the issue of IED detection more closely, you can discover that the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization -- has received $6.7 billion in taxpayer dollars since 2003, for the sole purpose of eliminating the threat of so-called improvised explosive devices, and that President Bush recently asked Congress to allocate an additional $6.4 billion for the effort. IEDs kill or maim our troops in Iraq daily. In fact, IEDs are the number one killer of our forces in Iraq according to this Defenselink article . The real problem is detecting them.

Detecting IEDs can be particularly difficult because they can be hidden almost anywhere, and every pile of rubble or garbage is suspect, he explained, so the training focuses on situational awareness. “We’re training soldiers to be keen, to be acute and to be paying attention,” Patrick said. “Our goal is to impart our experience so when it comes down to them being able to execute, it’s second nature.”

Actually, the real issue is that our vehicles travel along the highways at speeds of 55 mph (80 feet per second) or more. So, the method of detecting the IEDs at roadside requires realtime detection capability. Even some of the newer, electronic or high-tech methods haven’t been able to accomplish this task. Trained bees might not be a bad idea.

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2 Comments

This post really bugs me!

(sorry couldn't resist)

Put a "bee in your bonnet," eh Blackspeare?

Seriously though, the late-90's discussions were quite intent on the prospect of having a bee swarm (bees are better than wasps) identify and attack underground CW storage. Never happened though. This new work, however, is very interesting.