Saturday, December 03, 2005

...bees do it...

Expect the ranks of unemployed blood hounds to increase thanks to science:

TIFTON, Ga. -- Trained wasps could someday replace dogs for sniffing out drugs, bombs and bodies. No kidding.

Scientists say a species of non-stinging wasps can be trained in only five minutes and are just as sensitive to odors as man's best friend, which can require up to six months of training at a cost of about $15,000 per dog.

With the use of a handheld device that contains the wasps but allows them to do their work, researchers have been able to use the insects to detect target odors such as a toxin that grows on corn and peanuts, and a chemical used in certain explosives.

"There's a tremendous need for a very flexible and mobile chemical detector," said U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist Joe Lewis, who has been studying wasps since the 1960s. "Our best devices that we have currently are very cumbersome, expensive and highly fragile."

The "Wasp Hound" research by Lewis and University of Georgia agricultural engineer Glen Rains is part of a larger government project to determine if insects and even reptiles or crustaceans could be recruited for defense work. That project has already resulted in scientists refining the use of bees as land-mine detectors.

.... In 2002, the Pentagon considered fitting sniffer bees with transmitters the size of a grain of salt to locate explosives and relay that information wirelessly to laptop computers.

A British firm, Inscentinel Ltd., sells trained bees and mini-hives where the insects' response to scents from natural and man-made chemicals can be monitored. The company says the system can be used to screen for explosives, drugs, chemical weapons, land mines and for food quality control.

Jerry Bromenshenk, a research professor at Montana State University, is using bees for mine detection. The bees congregate over mines or other explosives and their locations are mapped using laser-sensing technology.

"Insects and their antennae have an olfactory system that is pretty much on a par with a dog," Bromenshenk said. "They're a whole lot more plentiful and a lot less expensive to come by."

Bromenshenk said bees may be more appropriate for open areas, while the Wasp Hound may be better in buildings.

"The difference is that we let our bees free fly," he said. "That's not good in confined areas like an airport."

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