19 April 2000

Bee Mine

by Kate Melville

The humble honeybee may help solve one of the world's worst pollution problems - land mines. Some 60 people are maimed or killed by mines every day and the Red Cross estimate that 80-120 million landmines are currently buried in 70 countries worldwide. An average of 40 000 new landmines are deployed each week.

So where do the bees come in? Bees act as flying dust mops, collecting dust on their statically charged fuzzy bodies as they go about their business gathering nectar and pollen. Chemists at Sandia Research Laboratories are working with entomologists at the University of Montana to see if foraging bees can reliably detect buried mines by bringing home dust containing TNT (the main explosive found in land mines). Jerry Bromenshenk at the University of Montana, believes that the foraging bees will provide a chemical survey of an area extending a mile in all directions from a bee hive.

If mines are present they can be removed, and if not then unnecessary man-hours will not be wasted looking for them. The only problem seems to be that the amount of explosive brought back by the bees is small, which makes analysis difficult.

To enhance their honey-bee mine detectors, the researchers have been developing nanospheres; tiny silica balls with extensive networks of pores that trap particles and concentrate the amount of explosive dust up to 500 times, enabling easier analysis. The balls will be used as artificial pollen and carried by the bees into the field. Early tests have proved promising.

The next step is to create nanospheres that can indicate the presence of explosives chemically, for example by changing color. It is hoped that a barrage of flying chemical detectors may one day prevent unnecessary death and injury and also return much needed land back to productive use.

Story: Philippa Rowlands