for National Geographic News
You've heard of the canary in the coal mine: In the presence of poisonous gas, the bird will sway or drop dead, alerting miners to get out.
Now researchers have learned that the collective buzzing of honeybees can provide a similar biological alert.
But unlike canaries, bees can differentiate between chemicals and will produce different sounds based on what toxin they detect, scientists say.
Bees could help soldiers and security workers detect toxic chemicals such as those potentially used in terror attacks, the researchers say.
The insects can also alert beekeepers to illness in a hive, because bees make different sounds when suffering from various maladies, such as infections or parasites.
(Read related story: "Mystery Bee Disappearances Sweeping U.S." [February 23, 2007].)
Researchers with Bee Alert Technology, a company affiliated with the University of Montana in Missoula, aim to create a handheld device that can warn humans of the dangers that bees detect.
"The same technology used for military applications may provide a diagnostic tool that could revolutionize how beekeepers manage their bee hives," said Jerry Bromenshenk, who heads the firm.
Bees make their buzzing sounds by vibrating their wings and bodies and pushing air through tiny airways they use for respiration.
Bee Alert's scientists set out to see if this mechanism could be affected by chemicals and other elements in the bees' environment.
"The military has been looking for a rapid means of detecting poisonous chemicals, and honeybees were a good candidate because humans and the bees share a common sensitivity to many of the same chemicals," Bromenshenk said.
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