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Narcotics detection: will honey bees put dogs out of work?

Bees are super smellers

Bees rely on scent.  In fact, their antennae have over 3,000 sensory organs that distinguish more than 170 odors.  Why is this?  Well, bees has evolved such fined tuned smell to perform daily activities that required knowing the difference between nectar, pollen, water, tree resin and to receive pheromone signals.  And we humans can make the most of these sensitive smellers by teaching them to expect a reward when they smell certain scents.

How bees detect narcotics

Researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) started using honey bees to detect explosives  in 2008.  Scientists at LANL use associative learning techniques (think Pavlov’s dog) to teach bees to stick out their probosces in the presence of explosive vapor.  The scientific traning term is called Proboscis extension reflex (PER).  This same process can be duplicated so that bees detect many other substance, including narcotics.

Advantages of using bees over dogs

1. Fast training – Bees learn to stick out their tongues after 10 minutes of trials while dogs require, on average, 3 months of training.

2. Accuracy – Honey bees accuracy at detecting smells averages about 98%, compared to 71% in dogs.

3. Low cost – Not only is the training of honey bees quick, easy and accurate…but the cost is relatively low.  Efficient canine training courses can be extremely expensive.  Quality trained narcotic detector dogs can be sold from between $5,000 to $10,000..but annual costs including vet treatment, licensing, equipment, food and handler’s compensation can be in excess of around 30K annually.  Sniffer bees come at a fraction of that cost.

4. Sustainability – To complete the cycle of use, bees can then be returned to the hive after a couple days of narcotics duty to make happy bee honey.

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Should bees replace police dogs?

The implications of this new scientific breakthrough make bees a viable option for replacing other animals currently used to detect narcotics.  But will police departments using canine friends give up their pals so easily?

The home-spun industry of K-9 police officers seems to be surrounded by tradition, history and feel-good relations between man and beast. There are national associations, buyers and sellers of trained dogs, and innumerable local police (and government) departments resistant to change.  Considering that there is an entire sub-culture of police dog lovers (that give awards and recognition to dogs and trainers, have photo galleries of their canine officers, and are generally attached to the dogs)…I doubt that dogs will be replaced by bees anytime soon,.  Despite the best of reasons, it may take quite a bit of time for bees to replace dogs in detecting narcotics.

What do you think?  Do you have experience with training dogs?  What reasons can you give to keep dogs on the force?  Is search and rescue and public order enforcement work in equal demand as sniffing work?   As a citizen who analyzes government spending, do you think that police departments should continue to spend money on canine training or start to take a look at the cost efficiency of using bees in police work?  Your comments and ideas are welcomed here.

Reference sources: The Daily Telegraph
Ketchikan, AK 2010 canine police budget report

Photo credit: Danny Perez Photography

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4 Responses to “Narcotics detection: will honey bees put dogs out of work?
7:42 am January 18th, 2011

rediculous is I can say and when a bee can multi task let me know

Dorothy Thompson
11:41 am February 2nd, 2011

Good commentary about dogs. But I own an 8 yr old golden retriever and I love him to death. I don’t think that dogs will be taken over or replaced by bees for a while.

Betty McKenna
2:13 am August 17th, 2014

I think it is so wrong at so many levels. Bees are meant to fly and pollinate and live in hives. Not be caged up in little cartridge and prohibited from moving. I saw this on TV today and I was outraged. Go with the dogs. Dogs remain free and have company. It’s a win win for the dog, the handler and humanity. The expense is worth it. It takes longer to train a dog so be it. I saw them place 6 bees in a cartridge as if they were disposable. It was totally disgusting. I believe that if the dog can be trained to do the same thing you should go with the dog.

3:01 pm October 13th, 2015

This is very misleading. Though bees may be very effective in controlled enviroments. The rigours of real world deployments of bees would be a nightmare. Let’s just look at roadside vehicle sniffs. The wind generated by passing vehicles would send any bee into a tail spin. Not to mention how fragile they are. Then you have people who are deathly allergic to bees. To many limitations. Dogs are going no where.

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