Honeybees As Forensic Crime Fighters

by Bee Site March 30, 2022

Honeybees As Forensic Crime Fighters

The hard-working honeybee only flies within around a five-mile radius from her hive when she forages.

Mary Ellen O’Toole, forensic science program director at George Mason University in Virginia, is excited about the idea of honeybees as crime scene investigators and says the 5-mile range that honeybees fly is incredibly useful to investigators on a case. She is the director of GMU’s forensic science program, and spent 28 years as an FBI agent.

At GMU’s five-acre forensic outdoor lab, the plan is to bury donated human bodies around the property where they are blended with a variety of rare native plants. This wooded fenced-in property is their body farm.

Doni Nolan, GMU’s Greenhouse and Gardens program manager says they hope to attract bees to the site. When worker bees go about their natural business of foraging, they contact flowers, bodies of water, and the soil.

According to Alessandra Luchini, GMU professor and Bioscience PhD Program Director, when bees touch those substances, they also touch and grab molecules, including volatile organic compounds or VOCs, and these are related to a decomposing body. Bees carry these back to their hive and incorporate them into their honey.

This unrelated 1:06-minute video by Texas Bluebonnet Award is an intro to the busy Apis mellifera, AKA the honey bee:

 

 

VOCs found in honey can be detected in a lab. Ryen Weaver, adjunct professor at GMU’s Forensic Science Program, clarifies that if they find a hive with evidence of decomposition and remains by way of VOCs in the honey, this can substantially reduce the size of the search area.

O’Toole labels this as exciting science, but admits that some people might think it is really gross. She talked a lot to the Green River Killer during the 28 years that she was an FBI agent. He was likely the most prolific serial killer in the USA, and he left his victims outside. This reminds O'Toole of how incredibly valuable this bee-related research is.

Students and faculty suit up in protective bee clothing and listen and learn from beekeepers about how to safely extract samples from beehives nearby. These hives are part of a collaboration with the Honey Bee Initiative and GMU’s School of Business. O’Toole says the students believe in and are passionate about forensic careers.

Weaver does not like the word closure because you never get closure when a family member is lost in the way that these scientists deal with forensic science. Answers are the big thing people seek, so the main goal is to help get answers because these go far beyond just closure.

 

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