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LANL Scientists Training Insects to Detect Bombs

By John Arnold
Copyright 2006 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Northern Bureau
    SANTA FE— Bomb-sniffing bees are at the heart of a promising new technology that could soon help fight terrorism.
    Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory say a new detection device that harnesses the common honeybee's extraordinary sense of smell can effectively signal the presence of explosives.
    "We're comfortable that (bees) can detect explosives at the parts-per-trillion level, which in some cases is better than the electronic and instrumental methods that are currently available from different instruments," said Robert Wingo, a LANL analytical chemist.
    Scientists have long known that bees, like dogs, could be trained to react to specific smells. Until recently, there was no practical way to harness individual bees and turn their reactions into a signal.
    That changed when a small British biotech firm, Inscentinel, developed a "bee box" that— with the help of small cameras and recognition software— allows humans to observe the bees' reactions to the smells they're trained to detect.
    The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Department of Defense's central research and development organization, asked LANL to test Inscentinel's system and determine whether bees can be reliable bomb sniffers.
    "Everything is based on smell within a bee society, and so we're harnessing that," said LANL entomologist Tim Haarmann. "We're utilizing that extraordinary capability and putting it in a box, and then throwing some technology on top of that and extracting a signal."
    Bees send that signal with their proboscis, or tongue. Give a bee sugar water or nectar, and it will automatically stick its proboscis out. Scientists can exploit this reflex by first giving the bee a whiff of explosive, followed by a reward of sugar water. After three or four of these training rounds, the bee will stick its tongue out at the smell of explosives, in anticipation of the sugar water, according to Haarmann.
    "So it's just a Pavlovian training. It's associative learning," he said.
    To apply this training, scientists harness individual bees with small straps and stick three of them into Inscentinel's shoe box-size device, which is attached to a laptop computer. A camera in the box and recognition software allow the user to know when the bees are sticking their tongues out.
    "So instead of developing a circuit or a chip that detects something, we allow the bee to do it," Wingo said. "It's very unambiguous."
    Wingo and Haarmann said they have conducted thousands of experiments on individual bees and have successfully detected a simulated suicide bomber, a simulated IED and a car bomb. While they envision improvements to the detection boxes, they say the technology has proven effective and offers advantages over current detection strategies, including bomb-sniffing dogs.
    Bees are more discreet, inexpensive to maintain and can be trained quickly, Haarmann said.
    "It's literally done within hours vs. the month that it takes to train a regular dog," Haarmann said.
    In addition to military applications, scientists say the technology could also be used to enhance airport, border and port security, and it has shown promise in detecting illegal drugs.
    Plenty of possibilities exist for non-security related applications as well, according to Wingo. For example, bees might one day be used in agriculture to search for overripe or underripe fruit, or in the medical industry to sniff out cancer, or in search-and-rescue operations.
    "If you can envision applications for canines, then we can envision applications for honeybees," Wingo said.