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Bees Trained to Detect Land Mines May Save Lives in Croatia

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May 20, 2013 10:40 AM EDT
Many plants and garden products marketed as "bee friendly" contain a substance deadly to bees and linked to colony collapse disorder, according to a new report, which calls for major U.S. retailers to stop carrying the products. (Photo : Flickr/ Moosealope)

More than twenty years since Croatia emerged as an independent state after a bloody conflict with Yugoslavia, the relics of war remain: fields of live land mines pose a deadly risk to people living in the region. But a local scientist is generating a lot of buzz for developing a novel approach to detecting mines.  

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Nikola Kezic, a professor and honey bee expert at Zagreb University, devised an experiment to train bees to associate the smell of food with TNT. By training the bees, Kezic hopes they can be used at mine detectors.

About 470 square miles (750 sq. km) of land in Croatia is still believed to be peppered with land mines; the Associated Press estimates 90,000 land mines were planted during Croatia's war for independence from Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. In the two decades since the war ended, land mines have killed 316 people in Croatia, including 66 de-miners, according to Dijana Plestina, the head of the Croatian government's de-mining bureau, who spoke with the AP.

"While this exists, we are living in a kind of terror, at least for the people who are living in areas suspected to have mines," she said. "And of course, that is unacceptable. We will not be a country in peace until this problem is solved."

Enter Kezic, who uses classic Pavlovian conditioning to get the bees to associate the smell of explosives with a food source by mixing a sugar solution into TNT. Once enough bees are trained to seek the scent of TNT, swarms of them will be released into already de-mined fields, where there is still a real risk of accidentally tripping an unaccounted for land mine. Researchers can use heat-seeking cameras to track the trained bees, which will gather around any undetected mines.

"We are not saying that we will discover all the mines on a minefield, but the fact is that it should be checked if a minefield is really de-mined," Kezic said. "It has been scientifically proven that there are never zero mines on a de-mined field, and that's where bees could come in."

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