Can Bees Smell Cancer?

Something for the Bees to Smell
(photo by permission Susana Soares)

This is an intriguing idea. A Portuguese designer has invented a novel system that might detect various illnesses, including tuberculosis, diabetes, and lung cancer. Susana Soares has built a lovely contraption – a glass bubble inside another bubble which holds a few well-educated honey bees and allows them to sniff out these diseases. Honey bees have an extremely keen sense of smell and they are quickly trained, Pavlov-dog style, being rewarded with sweets when they perform well. From the breath of a human with an affliction, disease is potentially revealed. It sounds odd, but a lot of things sound rather peculiar to me.

There is a British science firm, called Inscentinel, which is pioneering the research behind the device. A visit to their website is worth the look. There you will see honey bees locked in an Orwellian prison with their little heads poking out of tubes. Odors waft past and the bees are rewarded with a dab of sugar syrup. Within minutes the bees learn to expect the sugar-treat and upon smelling the training odor they immediately stick out their little tongues. When the bees encounter the scent again, they react with drooling expectation, tongues hopefully extended, indicating they have found diabetes-breath, or whatever they have been trained to detect. A clever idea, actually.

With the advent of the many honey bee health clinics around the world, this could possibly be an adjunct to other commonly offered bee therapies. In addition to honey massages and bee sting therapy, it may be possible to include screenings for sicknesses. Such a clinic would certainly be the right venue as honey bees would be involved in the clinician’s routine anyway. Does it work? I don’t know, but bees have extremely sensitive odor detectors, so perhaps it does. Is the system likely to be offered and developed? I’m not so sure as the training may be problematic. It is hard to make something like this transition into a practical application. But it is not impossible.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
This entry was posted in Apitherapy, Bee Biology, Science, Tools and Gadgets and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Can Bees Smell Cancer?

  1. Pingback: The Bees’ Sixth Sense | Bad Beekeeping Blog

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