Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
The US Navy has used dolphins to hunt for undersea mines and dogs have been used to sniff out bombs on land. Now, scientists are incorporating honeybees in the hunt for unexploded landmines in Croatia and possibly other war-ravaged countries in the Balkans.
Bees have a perfect sense of smell and scientists believe that smell might save hundreds of lives if they can be trained to sniff out the odor from unexploded ordnance (UXOs). Tens of thousands of landmines are thought to still be buried in Croatia, following the War of Independence in the 1990s.
Croatia is set to join the European Union on July 1, and while the country is wrapped in beauty, with lush green forests, deep blue mountain lakes, and a breathtaking Adriatic Sea backdrop, the country is also littered with UXOs. An area of about 466 square miles is still littered with mines dating back to the 1990s.
Prof. Nikola Kezic, a honeybee expert from Zagreb University, and his colleagues trained bees to sniff out explosives by mixing their typical sugary food with traces of trinitrotoluene (TNT).
Once Kezic trained the bees to sniff out the TNT, food mixtures were put inside a net tent, along with other food mixtures that did not include the explosive ingredient. Providing confirmation that the training worked, Kezic noted the bees in the tent gathered mainly at the food sources that contained the sugar/TNT solution and not the other non-coated sugar solutions.
“Our basic conclusion is that the bees can clearly detect this target, and we are very satisfied,” Kezic said in an interview with Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Kezic is also part of a larger campaign, known as “Tiramisu,” which has been sponsored by the EU to detect and dismember landmines in Croatia and abroad.
Kezic said the feeding points that contained the traces of TNT offered a “sugar solution as a reward.” He said it´s not too difficult to train a bee to detect explosives. “You can train a bee, but training their colony of thousands becomes a problem.”
Croatian officials estimate that since the beginning of the Balkan wars in 1991, about 2,500 people have died from land mine explosions. During the four-year war, around 90,000 land mines were placed across the entire country, mostly at random and without any plan or existing maps.
Dijana Plestina, the head of the Croatian government’s de-mining bureau, said the suspected devices represent a large obstacle for the country’s population and industry, including agriculture and tourism. In the nearly two decades since the end of the war, landmines have taken the lives of 316 people, including 66 de-miners, she 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.”
Mirjana Filipovic is haunted by the memory of a land mine blast that blew off her leg and took the life of her boyfriend while they were on a fishing trip in 2004. The accident occurred in a field that was supposedly de-mined.
“As we were returning hand-in-hand, my boyfriend stepped on a mine,” the now 41-year-old Filipovic told BusinessWeek. “It was an awful, deafening explosion … thousands of shrapnel parts went flying, hundreds ending up in my body. He was found dead several meters away, while I remained in a pool of blood sitting on the ground.”
Filipovic sued the Croatian government, arguing that the area was not clearly marked as a former minefield. The government has admitted guilt in failing to appropriately mark the minefield, but the court has yet to determine financial compensation in the case.
Mateja Janes, a researcher involved with Kezic´s study, was on hand this week in the southern town of Skradin, Croatia, where the bee feed testing project took place. The project has been painstakingly developed over many years though Zagreb´s Agronomy Faculty.
“We have heard that Americans were trying to develop something similar in a secret project, but it seems we’ve developed it before them,” Prof. Janes told the Croatian Times.
“Bees can smell flowers from a distance of [2.8 miles]. Therefore they can smell the explosives at the same distance. They are better at it than dogs,” noted Janes. “We hope this is a concept which can be developed and we hope it is something we can export to other countries and become indispensable de-mining tools.”
Prof. Janes said the team is planning to use the bees in a real de-mining experiment next month near the southern town of Benkovac. The region was the front line in the war in the 1990s.
Kezic said researchers in the US have in the past used honeybees in bomb-sniffing experiments, but because the scent of TNT evaporates quickly, the Americans didn´t include that in their tests. Also, rats and dogs have been tested previously, but because of their weight, they set off blasts when they encounter them. Bees, on the other hand, could be able to find the bomb without exploding it, allowing experts to detonate them afterward.
However, with bees, some mines could be missed because they are buried too deeply, increasing the risks of deadly explosions.
Kezic said, once the bees have been trained and are scientifically reliable, they will be put to the real test in areas that have already been de-mined to see if they can still sniff out mines that may have been missed. He said the bees will be followed with heat-seeking cameras to track their movements.
“We are not saying that we will discover all the mines on a minefield, but the fact is that it should be checked if a minefield is really de-mined,” he told BusinessWeek. “It has been scientifically proven that there are never zero mines on a de-mined field, and that’s where bees could come in.”
Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online