The western honeybee continues to surprise researchers with its many talents. A group of scientists at the University of Cologne, Germany, have managed to train the honey bee to detect concealed illegal drugs. The researchers even believe that honey bees are better suited for the job than sniffer-dogs.
And this is why: Bees are orders of magnitude more sensitive than sniffer dogs, say the scientists; training honey bees is easier, faster and less expensive; they can work much longer intervals compared to the 15-minute duty cycles of dogs; and they are more portable.
And there is another practical advantage of bees vs. dogs in today’s legal landscape: the dog “alert” is no longer sufficient evidence to allow a search without a warrant or additional probable cause, because they are trained to react to a range of drugs, including cannabis. Cannabis, however, has been legalized in two US states and is decriminalized in many others. Retraining dogs to ignore cannabis is difficult and training new dogs is time consuming.
Drugs testing under police supervision
The test involving the illicit drugs took place at the Forensic Science Institute of the German state of Hesse in Wiesbaden. After verifying the responses of the honeybee antennae towards pure heroin and cocaine, the researchers also found a positive correlation between honeybee antennal responses and different concentrations of specific drugs. In a next step, the scientists trained honeybees to show a reliable behavioral response in the presence of heroin.
Trained honeybees could complement or replace the role of sniffer dogs as part of an automated drug detection system.
The study was published in the scientific online journal PloS ONE.
Citation: Schott M, Klein B, Vilcinskas A (2015) Detection of Illicit Drugs by Trained Honeybees (Apis mellifera). PLoS ONE 10(6): e0128528. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0128528
Academic Editor: Wolfgang Blenau, University of Cologne, GERMANY