Move over sniffer dogs: Bees could be trained to smell the coronavirus

·2-min read

Watch: Bees trained to smell coronavirus

Bees may not be known for their acute sense of smell, however, research suggests the flying insects could sniff out the coronavirus.

With social distancing due to end in the UK by 21 June, officials and scientists alike are eager to identify coronavirus cases before they develop into an outbreak.

Like other diseases, the coronavirus brings about abnormal chemical reactions within the body that produce a distinct smell, which cannot be detected by humans.

Perhaps surprisingly, scientists from the start-up InsectSense and Wageningen Bioveterinary Research in the Netherlands have trained bees to stick out their tongue when they pick up on the infection's unique odour. 

Read more: Dogs could sniff coronavirus in sweat

Like dogs, bees reportedly can identify substances in the air within just a few minutes of training.

Honeybee flying to white Nemesia flower
Bees can sniff out a flower several kilometres away. (Stock, Getty Images)

Humans have long taken advantage of dogs' acute sense of smell, with man's best friend able to detect illicit drugs, explosives and even cancer.

Bees may also have a role to play, however, with the flying insects often sniffing out flowers several kilometres away.

Read more: How does coronavirus dampen a patient's taste and smell?

To learn more, the Dutch scientists gathered over 150 bees, which were exposed to samples from healthy minks and those with the coronavirus. Several outbreaks have been reported on mink farms.

When the insects were exposed to an infected sample, the scientists fed them a sugar-water solution, which the bees ate by extending their tongues. 

Over time, the bees associated the sugary reward with the coronavirus scent. 

The insects then extended their tongues when exposed to the odour alone, detecting an infected sample within just a few seconds. 

Read more: How to ditch unhealthy lockdown habits

"Several bees indicated very good results, and were able to distinguish the infected samples and those from healthy animals with very low numbers of false positives and false negatives," wrote the scientists.

Unable to marshal the right cells and molecules to fight off the invader, the bodies of the infected instead launch an entire arsenal of weapons — a misguided barrage that can wreak havoc on healthy tissues, experts said. (Getty Images)
The coronavirus causes abnormal chemical reactions within the body that produce an odour. (Stock, Getty Images)

A later experiment with human samples produced "similar great results".

The scientists are now investigating whether the approach can be carried out on a larger scale.

"Bees are globally accessible, so the only thing people need is a machine to be able to train bees," they wrote.

InsectSense's prototype technology "BeeSense" can reportedly train multiple bees simultaneously. 

"This can be a very effective diagnostic system for low-income countries that face challenges in accessing infrastructure and high-tech technologies," wrote the scientists.

The team is also working on "LumiNose", a biochip that uses insect genes to accurately detect volatiles; substances that easily evaporate at room temperature.

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