The Bees Knees: How Bees Can Smell Disease in Humans

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Honey bee on a flower at Lambley Nursery, Ascot, Victoria. Photo credit: Melita White

Bees are extraordinary animals. We rely on bees for the pollination of over 70% of our food crops in the global food supply, so they are essential for our existence. No pollination, no food. Simple. Colonies of bees have been diminishing worldwide in alarming rates in recent years, which should be of great concern to us all. The Varroa mite, along with certain crop fertilisers, insecticides and other human-made chemicals, are to blame. You can read more about the bee problem in this CNN article.

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Susana Soares’ glass diagnostic tool. Photo credit: Susana Soares.

What does this have to do with perfume, or the sense of smell, you may ask? Well, it seems that this essential species isn’t just good at helping humans to stay alive by pollinating our food crops. They may also be able to help detect diseases such as certain cancers, tuberculosis, and diabetes, in their early stages, and therefore help save lives. A bee’s sense of smell, more than 100 times more powerful than ours, can detect changes in the odour of human breath that occur when these diseases are present.

Designer and artist Susana Soares has designed a series of devices for detecting these illnesses, in collaboration with Inscentinel UK, a biotechnology firm. They are simple, yet very beautiful glass objects that consist of two chambers: the main chamber that the bees are in and which the person breathes into, and a sub-chamber that the bees move towards if they detect any bio-markers of illness in the person’s breath. The bees have been trained, Pavlov-style, using sugar treats as rewards, to detect certain smells (pheremones) that only exist in the breath when these illnesses are present. You can read all about Susana Soares’ amazing devices here and also over at her website, where there is a more detailed explanation of the processes she used, her research, the collaborative process, and how the bees were trained.

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