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Critter Chemistry

May 20, 2002

Bees on Patrol

Studies Find Bees Are Potential Chemical, Biological Agent Detectors

Lois Ember

For the past three years, the Pentagon has been testing honeybees as detectors for explosives in bombs and biological agents in ambient air. If the promising test results hold, bees could be used as border security sentries and as combatants against agricultural bioterrorism. In work funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the University of Montana (UM), Missoula, and its many partners are "exploring the ability of bees to look for biological agents," explains UM entomologist Jerry J. Bromenshenk. Bromenshenk has trained bees to sniff out parts-per-billion or lower concentrations of explosive residues such as 2,4-dinitrotoluene and chemical weapons instead of nectar.

In May 1998, C&EN reported on the bomb residue and chemical weapons research whose aim was "to train bees to find things by their chemical signatures," Bromenshenk says.

Current UM research, however, is looking "at the electrostatic charges on bees" to see how well the insects can scour the air for biological agents such as anthrax spores. The work exploits untrained bees as flying electrostatic dust mops to detect biological agents over wide areas. In these studies, bacterial spores, for example, that have been adsorbed on the bees' back hairs are washed off and are eventually quantified and identified through culturing or polymerase chain reaction analysis.

The ongoing explosives detection research, however, uses trained bees and is being conducted by Sandia National Laboratories, a UM partner. Independent verification of Sandia's research was carried out last summer at Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio, also a UM partner. Trained colonies of bees were successfully able to detect bomb explosives, making bees possible sentinels against terrorists at security checkpoints such as truck stops.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2010 American Chemical Society