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Bees' Buzzes Warn of Chemical Threats, Disease, Scientists Find

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
March 13, 2007
 
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.

Signature Buzz

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.

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.

(Hear normal bee buzzing followed by an alarm buzz indicating the presence of the toxic liquid toulene.)

"We were surprised by the huge number of audio signatures," said Larry Tarver, a software engineer who designed a program to analyze the buzzing.

Bee Security

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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