Living With Animals: Bees, Bats, and Bombs

By Hope Bidegainberry on September 20, 2019

Back a few weeks to my Labor Day column, I mentioned bees used to detect explosives. As promised to a doubting reader, this is my further explanation of what seemed to her a highly suspect reference.

Quoting here from no less a source than the December 7, 2006 issue of M.I.T. Technology Review, “Last week, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico buzzed with the results of a rigorous study on sophisticated bomb detectors. Their research suggests that contained bees can be used to identify volatile compounds like TATP, the primary charge associated with last summer’s terrorist plot [when three British citizens planned to used liquid explosives to blow up a transatlantic flight]. Highly reliable and precise, these next-wave detectors are cheap to produce and easy to train.” The article goes on to explain that honeybees have a terrific sense of smell, and that they can be trained to sniff for certain chemical odors and indicate when they’ve found it. We’re all familiar with dogs trained to bark excitedly when they detect narcotics coming through Customs – well, how about bees extending their proboscises (teeny tiny straws used to suck nectar from flowers) when they come upon explosives, much like bugs sticking out their tongues indicating disapproval.

Reportedly it only takes a few hours to train bees to recognize and signal when they encounter a particular smell. As with almost all animal training, this is done by trainers expanding on animals’ natural instinct (in this case, extending that proboscises when bees find sugar). The ability to detect one particular smell among a whole world of smells is highly developed in bees, we’re told, with one of the researchers explaining “Much to our surprise, the bees are capable of picking out TNT in motor oil… even in the presence of insect repellent.”   

This reminds me of bat bombs, an experimental WWII weapon in which bats were to be dropped over Japanese cities from night-flying U.S. planes to roost in eaves and attics, each wearing an incendiary device remotely set off to ignite flames in those wooden structures. Tests were conducted on mock “Japanese villages” built in Utah and only cancelled as the A-Bomb project began to show the desired results.  

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