Well, sort of anyway. Like dogs sniffing out cancerous tumors or sensing epileptic seizures, our little garden bee may have been given a job in the medical field. Many animals have been trained to respond to given cues to purpose a conditioned response. We in turn, exploit their natural gifts which far exceed our own to most amazing ends.
Honeybees, previously have been ‘employed’ sniffing out explosives at airports and pinpointing landmines in Croatia. Have a need for putting the collar on a terrorist out to cause explosive mayhem, on a drug dealer hawking marijuana, or a gun runner with a cache of weapons ? Call in the bees. Once they identify the criminals, douse them in sugar syrup, then send in the bees. Chances are the interrogation is made easier and the bad guys start spilling. But seriously speaking, bees can learn to smell a lot of different stimuli by using Pavlovian conditioning if the sweet smells contain the appropriate compounds.
In New Zealand, researchers have trained bees to identify tuberculosis. The bees are trained to stick out their proboscis when they smell Mycobacterium tuberculosis, very similar to the way the bees sense explosives. This and other sweet-smelling chemicals have quite the floral bouquet it seems. Methyl p-anisate is purported to be produced by some species in the orchid family. Japanese privet is known to have Methyl phenylacetate, with a fragrance reminiscent of sweet jasmine, (source). To have the odor of TB be similar to odors produced by flowers; now how strange is that? Is this nature working in mysterious ways? Giving us a point in the right direction?
How researchers train the bees is by blowing TB volatiles in a small stream of air towards a restrained bee. A solution containing the compound was applied to filter paper, then left to evaporate into the airstream where it came into contact with the bee’s antennae. One of the four compounds, (three proved testable for the odor of tuberculosis in varying degrees), was used. The scientists isolated the extracts with gas chromatography/mass spectrometer (cool science tools). One of the compounds, methyl nicotinate, is exhaled as nicotinic acid by TB patients. (source). This became a component in the lab-created scent of tuberculosis used for bee sniffing school. See the attentive students in the image below?
This image is of the tester bees (poor guys) for sniff school. These are the bees collected from the grounds of the institute. Can you imagine, being outside foraging around for pollen, then end up like shown above? What must these bees be thinking? Scientist Max Suckling’s and Student Rachael Sagar’s experimental setup has the bees restrained and ready for the sniff test. To see more of the equipment in the experiment and read the article, go here.
Each time the bee sticks out the proboscis it was rewarded with a sugar syrup, hence conditioning a response. Ironically, TB was releasing a known bee attractant much to the researcher’s surprise.
The scientists positioned a miniature camera on the bees to see how often they would get the desired response. And amazingly, it only took four exposures for a bee student to learn the response. Pretty amazing since bees must have one tiny brain. Well, maybe not since this is a conditioned response and not typical learned behavior. Or do they actually learn or dutifully react with a reward system? Since sugar is the motivator, the bees seem very willing to ‘learn’ this trait.
The purpose of the experiment could lead to using bees to identify TB patients in countries since the disease kills about two million people a year worldwide, yet is treatable. Bees could fray the costs where inexpensive diagnostic methods prove necessary. And to expand the application, what number of other diseases could be identified in patients by bees?
Here is an example. The fungus Aspergillus could be detected in cancer patients, like that detected by dogs, (from the article linked above). Dogs are very useful and abundantly qualified with those massive sniffers, but bees can do it cheaper and are easier to maintain and transport.
A bee works for a sugar syrup, now how economical is that? Bees are becoming sniffer dog replacements and that could put a few pooches on unemployment. After all, bees have a good ‘nose’ (antennae) for sniffing too. They can smell pollen up to a mile away. (source)
But like any living thing crossing borders worldwide, there will be regulatory roadblocks standing in the way to bringing in a foreign creature. Assurance would have to be made so that the bees would not escape into areas where they were never intended. Humans have learned from this mistake before, but I bet accidental (or even intentional) release still occurs. But, solving this, bees are an amazing little insect that I truly admire.
This image was shot in the late afternoon with both the Sun and moon visible at the same time.
And to finish off a post with a lot of bee curiosity, did you ever wonder if a bee can see the moon or the sun? I have always wondered if the moon cycle (not pseudo-science or hippie 60s stuff) affects bees in some way. I never did get a good answer. Well here is a paper that just might give you some insight on bee sight. Answer to the question can the bees see the moon? … unlikely.
Hey, where’s my bee – the pear is getting all the action?
And, I have to give credit where credit is due, I learned about this TB study from a blog post a couple of days ago at Dog Behaviour Science. Stop in and see!
Are you a fly that looks like a bee? Little imposter, you.
I then further looked into this very interesting research. If you like bees, you will find this fascinating. And here is another science blog where I found some of the information listed in this post, sinelight io.
See another post coming up that has a bit of ‘science’ in it called, Worlds View, Water, Water, Everywhere. Endless curiosity, I really am a bit of a nerd with a love of all things science and technology.