Cutting-edge scientific research is coming from The Netherlands recently and it concerns our favorite pollinators. Bees.
A Dutch startup company called InsectSense along with Wageningen University & Research (WUR) have devised a new COVID-19 detection method that is quite unusual.
This team of scientists has trained bees to extend their tongues when they sense a person is infected with COVID-19, according to a Wageningen University press release. When the bee is exposed to a person with COVID-19 the bee will extend its tongue and this means it is a positive test result.
This new method of detection is being called BeeSense and the name sums it all up. Bees have highly sensitive senses, including smell, and they can detect volatiles with a sensitivity of parts per trillion. To give an example of how sensitive this is, they can find a flower from several miles away.
COVID-19 triggers the infected person’s body to produce metabolic changes, just like with other diseases, and this causes a subtle change to how they smell.
This 0:33-minute video by KTNV Channel 13 Las Vegas discusses this new development:
The BeeSense team says they are able to train bees to recognize the scent of samples infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that spreads COVID-19, within a matter of minutes. While dogs can be trained in the same way to detect volatiles, scents, and odors, the difference is that bees can be trained so rapidly.
The InsectSense website identifies the main goal as exploring the use of “insect behavior and its underlying molecular biology, to provide relevant solutions in the fields of disease diagnostics.”
The methodology used in training bees is based on what is known as “Pavlov’s dog” so in this case we may think of it as “Pavlov’s bee” but it refers to the classical method of Pavlovian conditioning.
The research was carried out on more than 150 bees at the Biosafety laboratory of Wageningen Bioveterinary Research. The BeeSense bees were trained to detect infected samples of SARS-CoV-2 by receiving sugar water as a reward when they were exposed to an infected sample from minks as well as from humans. They extended their tongues to collect their sugar water rewards.
Results revealed a very low number of false positives or false negatives. It took only a few minutes of the reward action being repeated several times for the bees to associate the scent with the reward. They started to instinctively extend their tongues with each sensing of SARS-CoV-2. Researchers say a trained bee can detect an infected sample within seconds.
The WUR researchers and InsectSense will next collaborate on developing a machine that automates the bee training for this testing method. The startup has already developed machine prototypes. This bee method is a new addition to an ever-growing list of potentially cheaper and more accessible options for COVID-19 testing. Most tests are required for travel, and it can cost over $400.
BeeSense researchers say their bee method could be very useful in low-income countries where more of the population could have access to non-traditional testing methods since traditional methods are too expensive for many people.
To read a blog post we wrote about bees being trained as explosives detectors please click here.