Thursday, May 31, 2007

Croatian Bees To Take Sting out of Land-Mines

Bees being trained to sniff out TNT, can do so without fear of triggering the devices.

By Liam Bailey

Croatia, like Bosnia-Hercegovina and the other countries of the former Yugoslavia, has a big landmine problem, inherited from the wars of the 1990s. About 250,000 mines are still buried, covering more than 1,000 sq km (380 sq miles) of Croatian countryside and killing more than 100 people since 1998.

Bee-keeping has been commonplace in the Croatian countryside for centuries -- you can buy honey and other produce directly from bee-keepers at roadside stalls across the country.

At Zagreb university Professor Nikola Kezic is busy training bee's to use their keen sense of smell to help find unexploded mines.

As professor Kezic said "We started this because our citizens are exposed to serious risks with mines," explains Professor Nikola Kezic, "Luckily we also have a long tradition of keeping bees and making honey. Our solution makes use of what we have."

The bees are trained in a large white tent pitched on a lawn in the university's faculty of agriculture. The hive is at one end and feeding points are positioned around the tent. Only some of the feeding points contain food and the soil immediately around those points contains TNT. The idea is that the bees keen sense of smell will eventually learn to associate the smell of TNT with food. So far it is working really well.

Professor Kezic says the bees only takes two to three days in the tent, then a few bees are taken from the trained colony to check they react correctly to traces of TNT. Professor Kezic said: "This year our work is to increase the bees' sensitivity to the smell of TNT," He warns that it will take time before they are sure the system is reliable enough to use properly.

De-mining operations have been going on in Croatia for years, but they are slow and expensive operations, and tend to leave mines behind. Once the bees have proved their reliability the plan is to release a colony on an area that has already been de-mined. They will be tracked with special thermal cameras and expected to settle on areas where they smell explosives. If that is an area where the de-miners have not previously removed a charge then they will re-investigate the area to check they haven't missed one.
If the bees are successful then similar projects could become a cheap and easily available aide to de-mining teams across the war-torn Balkans.

Of course, this is not the first time animals have been used to detect mines. Giant gouched rats regularly perform the task in Mozambique. Like the Croatian bees they are trained to associate the smell of explosives with food. Sniffer dogs are also used to detect land-mines and are constantly in use to detect explosives in airports and other scenarios. But unlike rats and bees the weight of sniffer dogs means they are at risk of setting of the devices they are attempting to detect.

So, if Professor Kezic's optimism for how easily the bees can be trained is well founded, and they are effective in their role once trained. Bees could become an invaluable tool for de-mining operations around the world. I will keep you updated on how the bees progress.

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