Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Bees stick tongue out in the face of a worldwide decline @qikipedia

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In recent years there have been a spate of high profile projects aimed at turning bees into conditioned field agents. Their objective, to create an inconspicuous line of defence against terrorism, able to quickly detect a wide range of substances from TNT to Uranium. In order to train a bee it's a simple case of rewarding them with an intoxicating nectar of caffeine and sugar laced with the chemical that you want them to detect. After as few as five runs the bees become conditioned, and have learned to associate that chemical with food. They are ready to become field agents.

Thereafter, when a bee encounters a desirable scent, its reflexes cause it to extend its proboscis in a bid to feed – essentially sticking its tongue out. A British company, Inscentinel Ltd, has used this method to train bees to sniff out narcotics, plastic explosives and more than sixty other dangerous substances. Three bees are placed inside a small 'sniffer box', into which air is sucked in and wafted gently over the bees. All that their human partners need to do is watch for the 'tongue' signal. They might not be as a cuddly as a sniffer dog but bees are a lot more accurate - hitting the mark 98 per cent of the time, rather than 71 per cent for dogs, and bees only require 10 minutes training.

Another ingenious system has been devised by the University of Montana to detect landmines. Honey bees fitted with GPS microchips are sent out into the battle field. As they zip around, the electrostatic charge from their bodies attracts TNT residue from landmines. Once they return to base, this is detected, and the GPS data reveals the location. Honey bees are also being used as early detectors of lung and skin cancers, diabetes and TB, as well as to monitor fertility cycles and confirm pregnancies.

Even before bees were eyed-up to be high-tech field agents they were seen as a keystone species, of fundamental importance to ecosystems and to the survival of humans - Einstein is oft quoted as saying “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

So with all this in mind, isn't it a global tragedy that millions of bees are dying worldwide - honey bees are being hit by colony collapse disorder (CCD) - a phenomena that we barely understand but could be caused by a parasitic mite from South-East Asia. Bumble bees and solitary bees face a different problem, mostly the loss of suitable habitat. Many species collect nectar and pollen from a restricted range of plants - usually wild flowers which were traditionally abundant in flower-rich meadows, but in an age of intensive farming and pesticides these are now far and few between.

To find out more about bee conservation contact : The Bumble Bee Conservation Trust

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