Fun fact: Did you know that, in addition to playing a key role in modern agriculture, honey bees also have incredibly powerful senses of smell? They’re like the bloodhounds of the insect world, and can detect airborne molecules somewhere up in the parts per trillion range.
Just like bloodhounds, bees can also be trained to recognize specific smells with astonishing accuracy. In the past, researchers have used them to detect landmines, toxic pathogens, and more recently, even diagnose the early stages of certain diseases. Apparently, bees are particularly sensitive to pheremones from human apocrine glands, which contain information about a person’s health.
At this year’s Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven, Portuguese designer Susana Soares presented a simple, low-tech device that leverages the amazing olfactory talents of honeybees to detect a wide range of different diseases, including tuberculosis, lung and skin cancer, and diabetes.
The strange, bong-like blown-glass device consists of two chambers: a large enclosure, which holds a handful of trained honey bees; and a smaller enclosure that you exhale into. Before they’re placed into the large chamber, the bees are trained using Pavlov’s reflex, which connects biomarkers associated with certain diseases with a food reward. It’s exactly like training a dog, but unlike canines, honey bees only take a few minutes to train. Once they’re exposed to a specific smell, they’re fed a solution of sugar and water – a reward they remember throughout their entire six-week-long lives. When a person exhales into the smaller chamber, the bees will rush into it if they detect the smell they’ve been trained to recognize.
The system is definitely not foolproof, but could be used as a low-cost alternative to current early detection methods that require expensive medical machinery. Find out more on Soares’s website.