Because crazier things HAVE happened since 2020 – scientists at Wageningen University in the Netherlands use bees to detect COVID-19 in samples within minutes.
So, hows does this work? According to Start-up InsectSense and Wageningen Bioveterinary Research, bees have been trained to extend their tongues when they smell coronavirus.
“The coronavirus, like other diseases, causes metabolic changes in the body that causes a smell. Bees can be trained within minutes to recognise the scent of samples infected with SARS-CoV-2,” says the research statement from the university.
Bees are coaxed with a sugary reward
The insects are coaxed with a sugary reward to deliver real-time COVID-19 test results.
“Bees can detect volatiles with a sensitivity of parts per trillion. For example, they find a flower a few kilometres away. Bees, like dogs, can learn to detect volatiles and odors, but with just a few minutes of training,” reads the paper.
During the study, the insects were exposed to the scent from an infected sample, then given a reward of a sugar water solution. By repeating this process – the bees naturally associated the sugar reward with the scent from the infected sample.
“With this repeated conditioning, soon enough bees started extending their tongues out for the scent alone, with no reward offered as a follow-up. A trained bee can detect an infected sample within a few seconds,” concluded scientists.
The research included 150 bees with various training setups to find a way to optimise the training protocol.
The specimens of coronavirus-infected minks was used in the first experiments – and the results were great. The insects were able to clearly distinguish the healthy animals from the infected ones with low numbers of false results. When later tested with human samples, the results were as fruitful as with the minks.
What’s the next step?
Since bees are accessible throughout the world, the next step would be for InsectSense to create a machine which it already has to train bees.
This technology, ‘BeeSense’, can be a very effective diagnostic system for low-income countries that face challenges in accessing infrastructure and high-tech technologies.
Science never fails to impress – and if this technology is effective, it could be another defence against rapid detection of the virus.