Secret of bees: Recent research suggests bees can be trained to smell & detect coronavirus

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According to the researchers, it can take hours or days to get a Covid-19 test result, but the response from bees is immediate. The method is also cheap, potentially making it useful for countries where tests are scarce, says a recent report published in Reuters.

A number of global studies, still in their early stages, have found that dogs, with their strong sense of smell, can detect breast and lung cancer. They can also sense high and low blood sugar levels in people with diabetes, besides finding out if a person is suffering from Parkinson’s. As per research, which is in the early stages at Manchester University, Parkinson’s might have a discernible odour, which could be detected. In fact, more studies by the American Urological Association and many other institutes are being carried out to see if German Shepherds can detect chemicals linked to prostate cancer in urine samples.

Not just dogs, even bees can detect volatiles and odours—with a sensitivity of parts per trillion—by extending their tongues. Recent research by startup InsectSense and Wageningen Bioveterinary Research in the Netherlands suggests bees can be trained to smell and detect coronavirus.

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According to the researchers, it can take hours or days to get a Covid-19 test result, but the response from bees is immediate. The method is also cheap, potentially making it useful for countries where tests are scarce, says a recent report published in Reuters.

Experts say bees have a keen and acute sense, thanks to their highly social organisation. They rely on their antennae to detect volatiles and odours, but equally on their eyes for light intensity, colour and direction. It is these two senses combined that help bees travel far—over a few kilometres per trip for honey. They are also quite expressive as communication is key among eusocial organisms. Through actions, they physically communicate with their hive mates the distance, quantity (bees can do basic count and understand the concept of zero) and quality of honey for a collective foraging trip.

“Bees are primarily pollen- and nectar-feeding insects, and are a major part of the pollinator community of insects. While we identify mostly with honeybees—social bees that live in colonies—these are only a small per cent of over 650 bee species found in India. Most bees are solitary and make ‘cells’ in various substrates—in the soil, in tree burrows, stick hollows, as well as in rocky crevices and nooks and corners of our homes—and they are all important pollinators as well. Just like the tiger, bees are ‘flagship’ species. Their presence indicates a conducive environment for other pollinators to exist, and their absence indicates something amiss. Urbanisation and the resulting pollution have reduced the lifespan of individual bees, as well as their vitality. Non-host-specific pesticides such as neonicotinoids kill bees alongside other insects we consider pests. Increasing temperatures also reduces the vitality of bees, reducing their capacity to ‘work’ in high temperatures, as well as their broods,” shares Aniruddha Dhamorikar, coordinator, species, Central Indian Landscape, WWF India.

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Bees have been used as a model of insects to detect volatiles of interest, aptly called ‘sniffer bees’. They are trained using ‘classical conditioning’—much like how dogs are trained, except that bees can only be trained to detect one particular odour/volatile.

“Early experiments in using bees to detect narcotics such as heroin have shown positive results. Bees have also been a part of a study to detect other diseases such as tuberculosis, where volatiles produced by the infectious bacteria are sensed by them. Similarly, the recent study has shown that bees react to SARS-CoV-9. The scientists trained 150 bees to react to scent associated with SARA-CoV-9, which, if detected, makes the bees extend their tongue. The experiment findings have been summarised by the university, but the detailed study is yet to be published. While previous studies do show that bees can be trained in a short span, the technique, the technology and the equipment necessary to train and implement it in practice may be an impediment to the applications of this finding,” adds Dhamorikar.

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