The Big Sting

A productive colony of bees is seen in this undated photo. Beekeepers say a mysterious disease, possibly parasites or a virus, has wiped out nearly half of their bee colonies in Alabama, cutting honey production. Without a cure, fruit and vegetable crops depending on bees for pollination could also be reduced.
The latest weapon against terrorism might be something that can be found at almost any picnic. I'm not talking about bad potato salad or a cousin who's had too much to drink. The New York Times recently reported that scientists working for the Pentagon have been training bees to sniff out explosives. Apparently, they are at least as sensitive to odors as dogs (but they probably aren't as good at catching Frisbees).

Researchers at the University of Montana, the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Southwest Research Institute, and the Defense Department have been involved in training bees for the past few years. They teach the bees to seek out a particular scent by rewarding them with sugar water. Amazingly, they can be taught to prefer the smell of TNT residue to that of flowers in a couple of hours. That's approximately 18,000 hours less than it took us to teach our dog not to eat shoes.

The next step that researchers plan is to attach radio transmitters no bigger than a grain of salt to each bee. Then the bees can be tracked as they follow the scent of the explosives.

The news story didn't reveal where they're going to find people to volunteer for placing the transmitters on the bees. I can just imagine some government worker (with very good vision) patiently saying to his bee, "Stay. Now sit still while I tie this on. Good boy." I hope that after the bees obey, the guy doesn't start petting them as a reward.

Forgive my sarcasm and skepticism. Maybe I should assume that any program in which the government spends $25 million is well thought out. But I don't know about this one.

Let's say you train the bees. Then you get all those tiny radio transmitters hooked up to the bees. Then the bees start swarming around a suitcase. What do you do then? How do you make the bees go away so you can find out if the suitcase contains dynamite or a batch of brownies? I don't know if it will work if you call out to them with a stern, "Come here, guys. Right now!"

Also, the clandestine possibilities seem limited. If you're a bad guy and you see some guys in beekeeper outfits at a security checkpoint, you might just go to another location.

If it's so easy to train bees, what's to stop the bad guys from training their own bees? Will spies soon be stealing our bee training secrets? As with nuclear arms, won't it only be a short time before the "bee gap" is narrowed and every country will have "bee capabilities?"

I also don't know if the government has thought through the sociological implications of this plan. All worker bees are female. Isn't this a violation of the Civil Rights Act to deploy a female-only force like this? Is the government saying male bees are okay for sex, but they shouldn't be used in combat? And let's face it, these bees haven't exactly volunteered for the job. What will animal rights groups think of these innocent insects being drafted into a war that they have no control over?

The most interesting aspect of all this is that bees can be trained so easily. If this is true, maybe there are other uses for bees besides sniffing luggage. Maybe they've gotten a bad rap all these years, and would actually make good pets. Maybe you could teach a few thousand of them to bring your newspaper to you each morning. Maybe they could learn to harmonize their buzzing so they could serenade us with songs of our choosing. If you had a pet bee instead of a schnauzer, you could easily take it anywhere. You wouldn't have to worry about it making a mess, and I doubt that it would run in the street and chase cars. But if I ever get a pet bee, I'm going to ask one of those government scientists to attach the leash for me.

E-mail your questions and comments to Lloyd Garver

Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.

By Lloyd Garver