London: It is a sting operation with a difference... bees are being trained to sniff out bombs at Heathrow Airport.
Cheaper and easier to train than dogs, the “bomble bees” — packed into a hand-held detector — learn to stick out their tongue on sensing an explosive or chemical.
This trips an infra-red sensor that raises the alert, and bomb disposal experts can then step in.
A Hertfordshire-based company has received £250,000 (Dh1,421,373)of government funding to run a trial at Heathrow.
Subject to raising more cash, Inscentinel will be testing its bees’ ability to sniff out explosives in freight destined for cargo and passenger planes next year.
With the bee’s sense of smell at least as good as that of a dog, the company says it has simply capitalised on one of nature’s best inventions.
Ivan Hoo, Inscentinel’s chief executive officer, says that while a sniffer dog can take six months to train, the most adaptable insects can take as little as six seconds to learn to make a beeline for explosives.
A bee is trained by exposing it to the scent that is to be detected while dangling a sugary drink in front of it. The insect, which sticks out its tongue to get the sweet treat, quickly learns to associate the smell of the explosive or chemical with food.
Tests show them to be especially good at picking up tiny traces of plastic explosives such as Semtex.
Trained bees are loaded in cartridges which slot into the hand-held detector. Developed with Home Office funding, the device holds 36 bees and looks rather like a small vacuum cleaner.
On sniffing out an explosive substance the bee sticks out its tongue, tripping the infra-red sensor and raising the alarm.
Scientists at Inscentinel say that using bees rather than dogs to screen cargo planes for explosives would cut costs by three-quarters. Honey bees live for around six weeks. A successful trial at Heathrow would be a major step towards getting Department for Transport approval to use the sniffer bees at airports. They could also be trained to sniff out drugs or contraband tobacco.
In future, the bee-filled detectors could be loaded on to remote-controlled cars and used to scout for unexploded landmines.
In a separate project, scientists in Croatia are poised to test a swarm of bees on ground riddled with landmines planted during the bitter independence struggles of the 1990s.
Unlike the British ‘bomble bees’ they will not be housed in a device. Instead, they will fly freely over the ground and raise the alarm by landing on a troublespot.
However, the British scientists are sceptical, saying that faced with the choice of an apple tree or some TNT, the free-flying bees will quickly forget their training.
They believe their technique, in which the bees are held inside the detector, to be superior.
A Department for Transport spokesman said it had an active programme of research and development, but added: ‘However, we do not comment on the detail of security measures for obvious reasons.’