May I Introduce, Doctor Bee

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.

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About Donna Brok

Love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at: http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com
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18 Responses to May I Introduce, Doctor Bee

  1. photobach says:

    Très jolies photos et beau reportage

    • D’accord. J’aime la photographie macro. Facebook a beaucoup de groupes de macros.

      De acuerdo. Me gusta la fotografia macro. Hay muchos grupos de macro en Facebook

      I agree. I love macro photography. There are many macro groups in Facebook. Some really good pictures..

  2. I had never heard of the sniffer bees. Your blossom photos are gorgeous!

  3. AngryRedhead says:

    Pretty neat! Bees could be collected locally and trained, right? That way the only import is the methodology.

    • I read conflicting reports on countries with the highest incidents of TB. Some said developing countries were higher and others listed quite a few third world countries. So I guess you are right on having home-grown bees, because almost all countries have bees that is warm enough for them. But it has to do with the species of bees in each country to avoid foreign bee entry. Since they do not take long to train and the equipment is not so unusual, bees anywhere could be trained, provided the researchers don’t get some kind of patent that prevents others training bees for this purpose. I have no clue how that works.

  4. I’m a nerd, too, when it comes to explaining how science and nature work. Great info about the bees–I didn’t realize they were used so much in TB identification and other medical purposes. I love to watch bees zooming in and out of plants.

  5. Laurrie says:

    Well this was fascinating. I was amazed to learn about bees being able to be trained and to sniff out compounds. Thanks for an interesting read!

  6. thequeenofseaford says:

    Fascinating. Can you imagine, you have TB and a swarm of bees come after you? Those poor little bees in their ‘training mode’. This is a study I had not heard of, the dogs and cancer, yes.
    I have a great-nephew who last year (when he was three) said to me ” Aunt Janet, I see the moon and it is still light outside, how is that possible?”…pretty articulate for a 3 year old!

  7. Holy Moly. We all need to take the time to learn from even the smallest of creatures.

  8. HolleyGarden says:

    This is very fascinating. It’s amazing the things science will try – and even more amazing the things that can be smelt by animals. Those poor little bees in their restraints. I wonder what kind of psychological damage they have sustained!

  9. Now see if we had learned something like this in school i would have been more interested in science…I love bees…they are so underrated!

  10. Grace says:

    Never mind all this science stuff, your photos are amazing! I love how you caught the bees in mid-flight.

    The science is amazing too. What those little tiny brains are capable of is just astounding. Thanks for a great post.

  11. Back to test WordPress, have had some issues on posting. Those bee photos are incredible.

  12. Bees were already noted and credited for so much, so it is amazing that they have even more to offer. Somehow I am not surprised. This was very interesting, Donna, and so valuable…

  13. Carolyn says:

    Who knew?!! This is so interesting Donna… I have a very bright son in college and we read your post together. Absolutely fascinating. We’re off to follow the links.

  14. andrea says:

    Thanks for your ‘being a nerd with a love of all things of science and technology”, as we got lots of information. This is something new for me, and your style of writing makes it very interesting. If only i write well, i have lots of things to write too, haha! I am a fan of Lewis Thomas books, e.g. The Lives of a Cell. Maybe you know this too.

    Last Th-Fri i was absent and joined my friend to his farm outside the city, to the hills. We also visited a nearby farm making a native fruit wine and he incorporated a bee farm too. Then our conversation went to so many topics including the stingless bee, which i know as a kid but already forgotten. We just get to a common description when someone said it is the species which really concentrate on your hair in defense, and you will have a difficult time removing them. I learned from them that the honey from that bee is better as medicinal honey and better tasting too. We also were shown the hive of a naturally existing colony in an old tree, but we hesitated to get some honey to taste for fear of being attacked and our hairs being attacked.!!!

  15. Karen says:

    Donna, always something new to learn here. I am amazed by what science has discovered and how sensitive insects and animals are to odors. I would have never thought bees could be used for such a purpose or trained for that matter.

    Wonderful post, Donna!

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