Bees the buzz in landmine detection

Technology developed at the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is helping to determine if bees pass muster as secret agents in the mission to find millions of landmines scattered worldwide.

Pacific Northwest engineers have modified commercially available radio-frequency (RF) tags, which store information and can be used to track items such as clothing, to serve as high-tech "backpacks" for bees. The engineers have also designed special electronics and software for RF devices that read information on the tags. These devices will be mounted to manmade beehives.

Used together, these technologies will track the movement of bees and test their ability to detect minute amounts of explosives. If the bees can be trained to associate the odor of explosives with food, they will be a means for locating landmines and unexploded ammunition on firing ranges or old battlefields.

The RF tags and readers will allow researchers to track the movements of individual bees. For example, as a bee leaves for a day of pollen hunting, it will fly out of the hive and trigger the reader. The reader scans the tag on each bee, then sends the bee's identification code, direction of flight and time of departure to a modem. The modem then downloads the data to a central computer. This process will also occur when a bee returns to the hive.

A system of analysis tools now being developed by Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will be installed inside the hives to scan for chemicals found in explosives. Together, the tracking information and the analysis tools could help pinpoint landmine locations.

For more information, contact Pacific Northwest's Staci West at (509) 372-6313 or via e-mail at

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/1999 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Gerald F. Connell, ChE is a consultant, retired after 30 years with Capital Controls Group, Severn Trent Service Inc., Colmar, Pa. Mr. Connell is author of "The Chlorination/Chloramination Handbook," published by the American Water Works, and a forthcoming "Chlorination/Dechlorination Handbook" to be published by WEF.

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