A: TL;DR. Turns out bees have great sniffers, just like dogs!
Preliminary studies demonstrate up to 95% accuracy in detection of COVID-19 using multiple specially trained honeybees.
Scientists of all stripes have stepped up to the challenge of helping fight the COVID-19 pandemic, including scientists who specialize in insects with yellow and black stripes. Researchers from the Netherlands have successfully trained honeybees to identify the scent of the virus that causes COVID-19 as a strategy for a low-cost rapid test.
Training honeybees to recognize the scent of COVID-19 infection is much like how you would train canines using Pavlovian conditioning. Honeybees (n=150) were exposed to two sets of mink samples – samples infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus and samples without the virus. When the bees were exposed to a sample with the virus, they were rewarded with a sugar-water solution.
hen the bees were exposed to a sample without the virus, they did not get a reward. After a few hours, the bees were trained to stick out their proboscises (technical term for a honeybee’s straw-like tongue) only for the samples that test positive for the virus. Similar results were replicated using samples from humans with and without the virus.
Although these studies have not yet been peer reviewed, the scientists indicate a 95% accuracy rate when using multiple bees to do the sniffing.
Potential upsides of this approach are that it could be fast, convenient, and cheap. It could be especially useful in geographic regions that don’t have access to laboratory tests. Plus, unlike the training of canines, many bees can be trained at once.
It’s hard to imagine an airport security line with a swarm of COVID-sniffing honeybees. Yet, this pandemic has brought us many new ways of doing things (e.g., outdoor restaurant yurts, asynchronous physical education, and drive-by birthday parties), so someone can surely figure out a non-nightmare-inducing strategy to use hoards of honeybees. If COVID-sniffing honeybees are one way to get us together safely again, the Nerdy Girls support this innovation.
Articles about COVID-sniffing honeybees:
For prior Dear Pandemic stories about COVID-sniffing dogs, check this out: