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Fight Against Land Mines Gets an Unlikely New Ally



During the Balkan wars in the 1990’s, an estimated 90,000 land mines were deployed in the region. They were mostly deployed at random without a map of their location, so finding them is a difficult and serious problem. To help find the remaining mines, Croatian professor Nikola Kezic and his team are training honeybees to sniff out explosives. 

Kezic and his work with bees is part of a larger project to detect land mines called “Tiramisu.” The program costs millions of euros and is sponsored by the EU, which Croatia will be joining officially this summer. When the EU adopts Croatia, it is also adopting its land mine problem, which includes about 466 square miles of suspected active minefields.

As it turns out, bees can easily detect the smell of explosives, and can be trained to seek it out. Kezic and his team of researchers set up various feeding sites for a colony of bees. Some of those sites contained a sugar solution mixed with TNT, and because bees favored the sugar solution over boring normal bee food, they also learned to recognize the smell of TNT and to associate it with the sugar. The idea being that if bees associate TNT with sweet delicious sugar, they’ll flock to land mines loaded with TNT because they will be fooled into thinking that’s a tasty treat.

There is one apparent problem says Kezic, “It is not a problem for a bee to learn the smell of an explosive, which it can then search. You can train a bee, but training their colony of thousands becomes a problem.” It could be some time before bees are used in the field.

Rats and dogs are also trained to detect land mines, but since they can set off the mines, it’s better to have bees trained to find them. American researchers have experimented with mine-seeking bees in the past, but their work did not involve TNT, which was commonly used during the Balkan wars. The smell of TNT evaporates quickly, and after a long time only traces of the smell remain making it difficult to detect. Luckily bees are super-good at smelling things.

If the experiment with TNT-hunting bees proves successful and reliable, then bees will be deployed to de-mined fields as a sort of double-check. Kelic said, “It has been scientifically proven that there are never zero mines on a de-mined field, and that’s where bees could come in.”

Once the bees are set loose on a de-mined field, they will be tracked with a heat-seeking camera. The belief being that they will congregate around the explosives.

I wonder how many bees would have to land on the same mine before it detonates.

(via Phys Org, image via Quisnovus)

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Glen is a comedian, writer, husband, and father. He won his third-grade science fair and is a former preschool science teacher, which is a real job.