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Technology

Operation Sting

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While honeybees flit from flower to flower, they pick up a lot more than nectar and pollen; on each foraging trip, they inhale gases, collect water, and trap particles that stick to their static-cling bodies. Scientists are tapping into these environmental experiences by tagging bees and teaching them to seek out interesting targets, from land mines to gold mines.

Photo by Randy Montoya"Bees are nature's best sampling device," says ecotoxicologist Jerry Bromenshenk of the University of Montana. "Even a small colony of bees makes 30,000 to 60,000 trips a day." When the bees return to the hive each night, researchers can then strip dust off them or use chemical monitors to sample the air in the hive to find out what substances the insects encountered during their travels.

Tiny radio tags allow researchers to monitor the comings and goings of individual bees. Bromenshenk is trying to pinpoint which odors or colors bees respond to and is training them to associate particular sights and smells with a sugary reward. He wants to train bees to sniff out harmful chemicals, like the tnt that leaks from buried land mines, as well as useful compounds like precious metals or medicinal plants. "Land mines are high on the list of desirable targets, but there's a whole range of uses," says Bromenshenk.

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