Science

Bees Trained To Hunt Down Landmines

By James Maynard , May 22, 2013 05:19 PM EDT
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Honeybees in Croatia are being trained to seek out landmines buried for decades, which cause dozens of injuries every year, often to children.

Almost 500 square miles of this Balkan nation are still littered with landmines, left over from the Balkan wars which engulfed the region in the 1990's.

Nikola Kezic is one of the leaders of Tiramisu, a drive sponsored by the EU to rid Croatia of land mines that have killed 2,500 people since the beginning of the wars. She is also an expert on bees, and believes that the flying insects can be trained to detect TNT, using the same skills they employ to find sugar.

Workers establish feeding points that contain the explosive, with a sugary solution in the center of the sample. By teaching the bees to associate the smell of TNT with sugar, project leaders hope to train the bees to easily scout out land mines hidden in fields. The bees will be tracked by infrared camera.

Dogs and rats have been used in the past in the Balkans to seek out landmines, but the weight of those animals can set off the buried explosives. Bees do not pose such a risk. Another challenge with detecting these mines is that many of them are constructed with TNT, which has an odor that disappears over time. The acute sense of smell in bees allows them to still detect the ordinance.

"It is not a problem for a bee to learn the smell of an explosive, which it can then [use to] search. You can train a bee, but training their colony of thousands becomes a problem," Kezic said.

The issue of landmines in the region is a serious issue, with children frequently the victims of wars they are too young to remember. Over 300 people have perished as the result of old landmines since the end of the conflicts.

Dijana Plestina, the head of the Croation government's de-mining bureau said, "While this exists, we are living in a kind of terror, at least for the people who are living in areas suspected to have mines," she said. "And of course, that is unacceptable. We will not be a country in peace until this problem is solved."

Croatia is due to join the EU on July 1.  

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