Friday, Sept. 12, 2003 | 9:57 a.m.
Bee researcher Jerry Bromenshenk has some news that is setting the scientific world abuzz.
Bromenshenk has studied bees for 30 years -- but only in the past four years have he and other scientists discovered that they can train bees to hunt for buried explosives.
Bromenshenk, a University of Montana biology professor, said Thursday in Las Vegas that the research can be applied to helping protect the United States from terrorists who might be attempting to smuggle explosives into the country.
Addressing a group of Environmental Protection Agency researchers at the EPA auditorium on Harmon Avenue, Bromenshenk said the discovery, while surprising, has far-reaching implications.
"I think I like bees because they constantly fool me," Bromenshenk said. "They are amazing."
Bees gather particles of pollutants, radioactive dust and chemicals in addition to pollen on their hairy legs, Bromenshenk said.
At government and university laboratories, Bromenshenk has tested all sorts of bees and discovered they can learn several scents given off by explosives, including land mines.
There are 110 million land mines buried around the world and experts estimate it would take 500 years to clear them, he said.
"There are 30,000 fields in Bosnia alone," he said.
It takes bomb-sniffing dogs six to eight passes in a field to find land mines and it costs $20,000 to $30,000 over two years to train each dog, Bromenshenk said.
But bees can learn in two days how to find those mines, Bromenshenk said.
Two weeks ago some bees were put to the test in a controlled mine field in the New Mexico desert. Torrential rains and a tornado hammered the site. Yet the bees found the explosives almost 98 percent of the time, Bromenshenk said.
"They were right on it," Bromenshenk said. "They didn't go to a spot without an explosive on it."
Sandia National Laboratory scientists in New Mexico had a map showing the buried mines in the field. A map pointing out where the bees went when released in the field looked practically identical.
Bees could be also trained to sniff biological warfare agents, bacteria, viruses and spores such as anthrax, Bromenshenk said.
"They can go where dogs cannot go, such as the top of a van or into cargo containers," he said.
Researchers are also examining the accuracy of other insects and animals such as rats in detecting dangerous explosives, the scientist said.