Can hives save lives? Better bee-lieve it

February 6, 2009 / Comments (0)


MEA-MFT members develop honeybee swat teams for landmine detection

Back in the old days, miners used canaries to warn them of toxic gases in the mines. Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk, an MEA-MFT member and University Faculty Association board member, uses another little yellow flying critter-the humble honeybee-to detect environmental hazards.

For 30 years, Bromenshenk, researcher and entomologist at the University of Montana in Missoula, has studied bees and used them to assess risks such as radiation, chemicals, and heavy metals.

Recently, Bromenshenk and his colleagues, Steve Rice and Colin Henderson (both MEA-MFT members) and Robert Seccomb, have been making international headlines for their breakthrough research on using bees to detect one of the most deadly environmental dangers of all-explosive landmines.

They believe the honeybee method could save tens of thousands of lives and bolster Montana’s economy at the same time.

Pavlov’s honeybees
The UM bee team has developed two different methods of using bees to detect environmental hazards. These little flying dust mops collect particles on their statically charged hairs as they buzz about, bringing clues back to the hive where scientists can analyze them. It’s a process called passive monitoring.

In active monitoring, the researchers train bees to associate a certain odor with food, much like Pavlov’s famous dogs. In just a couple of days, bees can be trained to seek out and hover over a particular scent.

“They think their favorite food (sweet syrup) will be near the scent we want them to fly to,” explained Steve Rice, who chairs the electronics department at the UM College of Technology in Missoula and developed the “fake electronic flower” used to train bees.

In the past four years, the UM team has been training bees to seek out some particularly deadly scents-the chemicals in landmines.

Landmines are littered throughout war-torn countries across the world. The Red Cross estimates 80 to 120 million unexploded landmines lurk buried in some 70 countries, where they kill or maim 20,000 to 30,000 people each year. Children are the most common victims.

Flying colors
To see whether trained honeybees can locate buried landmines and other explosives, the UM researchers pooled resources from three federal agencies, three national labs, Montana’s universities, and a tribally owned business (S&K Electronics of Pablo) to fund and conduct the research, initially funded by the Department of Defense.

They also teamed up with scientists at Sandia National Laboratories, who first developed a laser system to detect insects; NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association), which provided the laser itself; and colleagues at Montana State University in Bozeman, who provided laser mapping of bees during the field trials.

The researchers held their field tests in August 2003, and the bees passed with flying colors-literally. They had a 95 percent accuracy rate, compared to a 71 percent accuracy rate for bomb-sniffing dogs.

Here’s how the method works: Chemicals from landmines disperse through soil and create plumes. Trained honeybees looking for a sweet treat are attracted to the plumes and hover over them. Researchers pinpoint the bees’ location (and thus the location of the landmine) using the laser system.

Bee wranglers
To refine their method for commercial use around the world, Bromenshenk and Rice recently formed Bee Alert Technology, Inc., along with Colin Henderson, assistant professor of biology at UM’s College of Technology; Robert Etter, a U.S. Forest Service electrical engineer (formerly of the UM College of Technology); and Robert Seccomb, computer sciences specialist in the UM biological sciences department.

Bee Alert Technology has secured two U.S. patents and is now seeking international patents so the company can take the project overseas. According to Bromenshenk, the company needs to conduct a few more experiments and get the laser technology down to a portable size. “We’re very close,” he said. “We know how to do it; we just need the financing.”

Bee Alert Technology hopes to get financial backing from a humanitarian group for its efforts.

Rice, who is also a board member of his local union, said training people to use bees in minefields is essential to the project’s success. Bee Alert Technology is involved in a cooperative project with the UM College of Technology and S&K Electronics to provide the equipment and develop the training.

The plan is to make the method simple enough so any beekeeper can use it with any honeybees, anywhere in the world.

“We’re trying to control the quality of the bee wranglers (the people who maintain the hives and monitor the equipment),” Rice explained. “I don’t want to send Americans to Africa to do this; I want to train Africans to do it.”

Besides saving lives and limbs, the bee detection process can also help restore agriculture in war-torn countries, Bromenshenk said. Much of the world’s landmined area is agricultural cropland. “The strategy is to starve out your opponent,” he explained.
In addition, war often destroys beehives and beekeeping, and agriculture can’t survive without bees. Their original job, after all, is pollinating crops and other plants.

“If you can get beekeepers involved in the process of clearing landmines and get beekeeping going again,” Bromenshenk said, “it would be a win all the way around.”

Economic development for Montana
The humanitarian effort to save lives is the main driving force behind Bee Alert Technology, Inc. But the bee method also has the potential to bring significant jobs and economic development to Montana.

The company plans to keep the technology and development based in Montana. “We have all the expertise and technology here in the state,” Bromenshenk said.

Currently, there is only one demining company based in the U.S., according to Bromenshenk. That company has grown from a small venture with six bomb-sniffing dogs to 4,000 employees in 30 countries, with contracts up to a billion dollars a year.

“If Montana could get even a fraction of that, it would be a huge economic bonus to this state. It could be very, very big business,” said Bromenshenk.

The bee project is just one example of how higher education contributes to the state’s economy. Fortunately, the Montana Legislature passed a law in recent years allowing higher education faculty to develop their own innovations.

The law removed a significant barrier to economic development and formalized a way to establish companies with approval of the state Board of Regents. Bee Alert Technology got its green light from the regents in summer 2003.

‘Wake up and respect the bugs’
Honeybees probably won’t replace dogs in the business of landmine detection, but they can make a big contribution, according to the bee researchers.

And bees have several advantages. They hang out together in groups of thousands and can cover every inch of a football field-sized area in a short amount of time. They aren’t big enough to trip a landmine, and they don’t require a handler with a leash to venture into dangerous territory with them. Plus, it takes far less time to train bees than dogs.

According to the Rand Institute, clearing the world’s landmines with conventional technology would take up to 500 years. “If we can get the bees out there, we can do it in 50 years,” said Rice.

Bee Alert Technology, Inc. has other big plans for their talented bees. Among other things, the company’s partners envision using bees as sentinels for chemical and biological warfare agents. They recently received a small business award from the U.S. Army to advance this concept. They also plan to enlist the bees in improving agriculture right here at home.

“All the equipment we’ve developed lends itself to better agricultural practices,” Bromenshenk said. “If we can train bees to find a landmine, we should be able to train them to pollinate any kind of crop.”

As a third-generation Montanan who grew up in agriculture, the agricultural applications are “near and dear to my heart,” he said.

For now, however, it’s the bees’ flair for finding deadly explosives that continues to snag the headlines.

“They’re pretty smart little critters,” said Rice. “It makes you think maybe we’d better wake up and start respecting the bugs.”

Bee project’s A-team
The honeybee research project “always has been a team effort,” says Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk. Besides those mentioned in this article, other team members include:

  • Joe Shaw, MSU, Electrical & Computer Engineering

  • Lee Spangler, MSU, Director of Special Programs

  • Bob Madsen, Science Instructor, Chief Dull Knife College

  • Delbert Kilgore, UM physicist

  • Garon Smith, UM chemist

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