His team exposed colonies of bees to various chemicals that the insects might encounter in an agricultural setting.
"The U.S. Army was looking for a response [to the chemicals] in 15 minutes, but we were getting a response in 30 seconds," he said.
The real surprise, he added, was that the different sounds bees produce can actually signal what chemicals they're sensing.
"That absolutely flabbergasted us," Bromenshenk said. "We thought at best they would be able to tell that something harmful was present."
The researchers devised a sensitive detection system and placed it in the hives to record the bees' sounds.
Using the same technology as voice recognition software, the scientists were able to analyze the buzzing to determine which buzzes correspond to which chemicals.
"We were surprised by the huge number of audio signatures," said Larry Tarver, a software engineer who designed a program to analyze the buzzing.
The bee alert system could be used for protecting military troops in camp or as a security system around a base.
Bees recycle the air in their hives every three minutes and never sleep, so they could provide 24-hour air monitoring, the scientists note.
The technology could also help beekeepers keep their hives healthy.
"We can tell not only whether the colony has mites or not, but also the level of infestation they have," Bromenshenk said.
His team is working on developing a handheld device that could detect an infestation.
"We hope to have an acoustics-recorder system that you can use to walk up to a hive and scan it, and within 30 seconds you would get a readout that tells you if there's something wrong in the hive," Bromenshenk said.
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