At first we thought we just weren't reading things right. But we were reading things right after all. There is a new weapon for fighting terrorism — BEES. The honeybee, Apis mellifera, is being used for detecting explosives.
Patent Applications contain the pre-grant publication of patent application 13/439825: " METHOD FOR TRAINING HONEYBEES TO RESPOND TO OLFACTORY STIMULI AND ENHANCEMENT OF MEMORY RETENTION THEREIN." The application was filed on April 4, 2012, claims priority from U.S. provisional patent application Ser. No. 61/471,578 filed on Apr. 4, 2011. According to the Los Alamos site this work began in 2006.
What actually caught our eye was the application's abstract which says,
A specialized conditioning protocol for honeybees that is designed for use within a complex agricultural ecosystem. This method ensures that the conditioned bees will be less likely to exhibit a conditioned response to uninfected plants, a false positive response that would render such a biological sensor unreliable for agricultural decision support. Also described is a superboosting training regime that allows training without the aid of expensive equipment and protocols for training in out in the field. Also described is a memory enhancing cocktail that aids in long term memory retention of a vapor signature. This allows the bees to be used in the field for longer durations and with fewer bees trained overall.
Ok. An agricultural use for bees. But then the Assignees include the University of California (a place with lots of agriculture) and Los Alamos National Security, LLC (LANS), - a company formed by the University of California, Bechtel, Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services and URS Energy and Construction — a place known for its national security work. The Los Alamos mission is to,
"develop and apply science and technology to ensure safety, security and reliability of the US nucler deterrent; reduce global threats, and solve emerging national security and energy challenges."
At first we thought Killer Bees (we did watch SNL reruns this weekend after all) but with a little internet digging around we learned that the Stealthy Insect Sensor Project at the Lab is using Pavlovian techniques (yes, the same as the rewards for the dog) to teach honeybees to signal the presence of certain explosives or chemicals by sticking out their tongues. (No kidding.) The Bee in a Box (BiB) technology is tailored for detection of agricultural pathogens — volatile organic compounds — explosives, drugs — using special cassettes designed for use at security checkpoints to discreetly check for explosives.
And consider this — honeybees can be trained to respond to a particular scent within hours (dogs take a lot longer), and are inexpensive to reproduce and maintain. This technology (a better word is needed here - apparatus, method, insect) may help replace or supplement the current bomb-sniffing dogs and frankly no one will shed a tear at the bee's untimely passing, plus there is no need to create Drug Bee trading cards.
In addition to explosives, the technology offers options for drug detection, identification of the presence of crop disease in a variety of agricultural settings — preventing significant loss of high value crops through early detection - and hopefully saving those chardonnay grapes from any evil invasion of crop disease.
Claim 1 is provides the basics on the invention:
See for yourself:
1. A method for detecting agricultural volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds, the method comprising: (a) training bees to exhibit a proboscis extension response when exposed to a selected volatile or semi-volatile organic compound (VOC/SVOC), the training comprising: exposing a bee to background air; exposing the bee to the selected (VOC/SVOC); and exposing the bee to said selected (VOC/SVOC) while stimulating an antennae of the bee with a sugar solution to produce a trained bee; (b) exposing the trained bee to a sample; and (c) observing a response of the trained bee to the exposure of the sample; (d) wherein the presence of the selected (VOC/SVOC) from the sample will cause the trained bee to exhibit a proboscis extension response.
Self reproducing technology. (In light of the recent Supreme Court decision on Monsanto self-replicating technology it will be interesting to see how this self-reproducing technology gets licensed.)
But There's More
Scientists at Zagreb University are also looking at the power of bees to detect explosives. Nikola Kezic, an expert on the behavior of honeybees at Zagreb University outlined the idea for an experiment to use bees to detect the presence of land mines: Bees have a perfect sense of smell that can quickly detect the scent of the explosives. They are being trained to identify their food with the scent of TNT.
Professor Kezic, leads a part of a larger multimillion-euro program, called "Tiramisu," —Toolbox Implementation for Removal of Anti-personal Mines Submunitions and Unexploded Ordinances (UXOs) sponsored by the EU to detect land mines on the continent. (While the scientific community continues to dazzle us with its acronyms skills, a project for detecting land mines named after a sweet dessert seems a bit odd.) Scientists in Croatia use specially-bred colonies of bees that can detect buried landmines from more than three miles away. The bees are trained by being fed an irresistible sugar solution mixed with the smell of explosives. Professor Mateja Janes, who trained the bees notes, "Eventually they come to associate the smell of any explosives with easy food and will literally make a bee line for them." Croatia is still riddled with unexploded landmines from the violent independence struggles in the Balkans during the 1990s.
Prior Art Mashup
There is lots of overlapping work in this area. The acronym rich list of organizations involved in the use of bees to detect explosives or to use them to identify the presence of volitale chemicals (bombs.)
The work at Zagreb began in 2007. The US patent application dates back to 2011. A quick look at the US patent application from UC and Los Alamos and the prior art cited in Public PAIR does not include any references to the work at Zagreb University. But not all of the prior art literature is available at this point. It will be interesting to see how this shakes out.
The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Montana will fit 50 bees with the radio tags and release them into a minefield to see if the combination of insect and technology works. The tags, no larger than half a grain of rice, will be attached to the backs of the bees. (Imagine the process and the protective suit needed for this work.) The work goes back to 1999.
A system of analysis tools being developed by Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, and the Environmental Protection Agency will be installed inside the hives and scan for chemicals found in explosives. Together, the tracking information and the analysis tools could help pinpoint landmine locations.
Inscentinel Ltd, a small biotechnology company based in the UK, specialising in the olfactory ability of insects for trace vapour detection, has come up with a new piece of bomb-detecting technology, the honey bee. The bees have been trained by using classical conditioning methods to recognise chemical substances in the air. These include explosives. Each time a particular chemical is passed through the air, the bee is given some food and extends its tongue to eat. This means that the bee can be trained to repeat the action each time it comes into contact with and recognises the chemical, and this is then recorded by image-detecting software inside a mobile fume cupboard. Inscentinel was founded in 2000. There are articles dating back to 2007 on use of bees and wasps to detect chemicals and vapors.
Each week Way Better Patents looks at patents and patent applications that contain government interest statements - an indication on the patent document that the invention was partially funded by taxpayer public research money. They provide insight into new and emerging technology from the research and development efforts at universities, post-doctoral research institutes, small and emerging companies, and government labs. There is always something interesting on the list.