US military defence scientists have found a way to train the common honey bee to smell explosives used in bombs, a skill they say could help protect American troops abroad.
Scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico said in an online statement published on Monday they had developed a method to harness the bee's exceptional olfactory sense.
"The new techniques could become a leading tool in the fight against the use of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, which present a critical vulnerability for American military troops abroad and is an emerging danger for civilians worldwide," the research laboratory said.
The scientists used Pavlovian techniques on the bees' natural response to nectar, a sticking out of their tongue, or probosci's extension reflex.
By rewarding them with sugar water, the scientists taught bees to give the same reflex action when they were exposed to vapours from explosives such as dynamite, C4 plastic and TATP (triacetone triperoxide), often used by suicide bombers.
"Scientists have long marvelled at the honey bee's phenomenal sense of smell, which rivals that of dogs," said Tim Haarmann, principal investigator for the Stealthy Insect Sensor Project.
"But previous attempts to harness and understand this ability were scientifically unproven. With more knowledge, our team thought we could make use of this ability."
As part of the research, the scientists sought to isolate genetic and physiological differences between those bees with good an acute sense of smell and those without it.