AMAZING BEE STORIES:
Training bees to detect bombs
By Andy Welch
In order to help study bees, scientists decided they first needed to train them, and the best way to train a bee is to give it sugar every time it does something right, and give it nothing when it gets it wrong. It’s a bit like parenting in the 1950s.
So for example, just by rewarding bees with sugar every time they chose the correct door, they were able to train bees to navigate their way through a maze of tiny rooms. Then they tried training bees to use visual sign posts. For example, they trained the bees to always go through doors marked with a green circle. After training for half a day, the bees could then follow any path through any maze just by following the green doors, which is pretty clever. Scientists then realised they could use a similar method not just to train bees, but also to determine other things like whether bees experience emotions. The first one they tested was ‘joy’. They showed the bees white circles and green circles and every time they showed a green circle they gave the bees some sugar, but the bee received nothing for a white circle.
Then they retested the bees but with no rewards, and they measured the bee’s heart rate after showing a green circle, and the bee’s heart rate went up. The bee gets excited because it thinks it is getting sugar.
The scientists interpreted this as ‘joy’.
(This is presumably quickly followed by ‘really annoyed’ when the bees realise there is no sugar and it’s just a stupid experiment.)
Then they decided to try to test for fear, and the first question is how do you scare a bee? But they solved this pretty quickly by wiring the bee up to a battery and giving it a shock every time they showed it a blue circle. Then they measured its heart rate whenever they showed a blue circle and sure enough, it turned out that the bees were indeed terrified.
So now we know bees can quickly learn associations, navigate mazes, experience emotions, and aren’t big fans of being electrocuted. But what possible use is any of this?
Having trained the bees to navigate a maze based on visual signs, they also tried it based on their sense of smell, and it turns out bees are even better at this, as a bee’s sense of smell is at least 100x better than humans. Bees are also very sensitive to the presence of certain chemicals.
To investigate this further, scientists used the same sugar training techniques they used for the maze. They trained the bees to expect sugar whenever they smell the chemicals used to make fertilizer bombs, as it turns out bees are very good at detecting certain nitrates.
Whenever the bees sense the bomb chemicals, they expect a sugar reward so stick their tongues out. This can be picked up by video analytics, so they created a mini bomb detector. Apparently, the first product offering in this space was literally just a box of bees, but for some reason, this wasn’t a success commercially.
But it gets even better. Having trained the bees to detect bombs, the scientists let the bees go back to their hive, and after a few hours, the bees shared the information with the rest of the hive. So they now had a hive full of potential bomb detectors. Somehow the bees are able to teach their mates the link between a very specific chemical and sugar. And the information is so precise, that some bees lost interest in looking for flowers and just focused on the chemicals instead. Possibly not great for pollination, but self-training bomb-detecting bees is still pretty clever. Scientists are also looking at using bees to detect diseases which might be detectable in human breath, such as cancer and Covid-19. So while a sniffer dog typically takes at least 6 months to train and is accurate about 75% of the time, a bee can be trained in 10 minutes and gets it right nearly 98% of the time.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andy Welch is a data and analytics specialist, who provides technology and data science support to The World Bee Project. This includes helping to manage the World Hive Network data sets as well as providing analytics support for The World Bee Project's global research projects