Brought to you by Newscorp Australia

Scientists teach bees to do the job of sniffer dogs to save lives

John Simpson, September 2, 2019 7:00PM Kids News

Print Article

A bee covered in yellow grains of pollen sits on a sunflower in a field in Germany. Picture: AFP media_cameraA bee covered in yellow grains of pollen sits on a sunflower in a field in Germany. Picture: AFP


Reading level: green

Bees are being trained to do the job of sniffer dogs.

And they could be ready to get to work in five years, saving many people’s lives.

Dr Ross Gillanders, a researcher at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, UK, has been training the bees as part of a project funded by an international organisation called NATO*.

By using sugar water as a reward, the researchers have been teaching bees to recognise the smell of explosives as though it was nectar from a flower.

media_cameraBees taught to recognise the smell of explosives head out from the hive and can find landmines 100m away. Picture: AFP

The bees can detect the smell of explosives, which are used to make bombs.

“At the moment we know they can detect the landmines from about 100m distance but that should go up to kilometres. It should happen immediately once they’re trained and released,” Dr Gillanders said.

Landmines are a type of bomb hidden just below the surface of the ground, so that a person walking or a car driving on it sets it off. When landmines are used in wars, the land is not safe for people to return to after the war is over until all the landmines have been cleared.

In the trials, as soon as the bees are sent out of the hive they ­settle almost instantly on the spot where a landmine is.

media_cameraA Southern Sudanese woman clears grass and soil around a suspected landmine in the minefield of Bungu, South Sudan as part of an all-female team helping to clear the area after Sudan’s 22-year civil war. Picture: AFP

Dr Gillanders explained: “Bees have an advantage in that they cannot accidentally set off landmines and can cover ground not readily accessible* for dogs.”

When the bees find the explosives but no reward of nectar they quickly realise they have been fooled and stop detecting the explosives.

“They get used to it so they realise after a couple of days that they have been hoodwinked*. Every few days you have to retrain them but hopefully by that time they have found the explosives.”

There has been a similar trial of bees detecting explosives in the US.

WEEKEND ONLY- Ben the Bee Guy media_cameraThe training works for a couple of days, before the bees realise they have been fooled. Picture: Nicole Cleary

Bees can also be trained to sniff out drugs, chemicals and radioactive substances.

Dr Gillander works in a team with a scientist who used bees to map an area around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukrainian SSR, where the worst nuclear accident in history occurred in 1986 and contaminated* the area with radioactive substances, which are very dangerous for people and animals.

The bees are sent to the contaminated area and the scientists can test the contamination levels in the pollen they return with.

Training and keeping bees is quicker and cheaper than training dogs. They are considered at least as sensitive as dogs, and dogs are known to underperform when poorly treated.

STL NEWS L to R.Orlando Valentigue with his dog Ben,Major David(no last name to be used) & Dragon Malikanovich with his dog,Peggy search for landmines in the Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan.10/09/02.Pic John Fed media_cameraOrlando Valentigue with his dog Ben, Major David and Dragon Malikanovich with his dog Peggy search for landmines in Afghanistan in 2002. Picture: John Fed

Dr Gillanders admitted that a drawback of working with the bees is that bees can sting you. During one field trial he was left with 20 stings on an ankle that was not covered by his beekeeping suit.

He said: “They seemed to know where to go for.

“It was the only part that was exposed.”

This article was first published in The Times and was reproduced here with permission.


  • NATO: stands for North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a group of 29 countries from North America and Europe that have been working together on military or defence projects since the end of World War II.
  • accessible: able to be reached
  • hoodwinked: fooled
  • contaminated: infected or spoiled by coming into contact with poison, pollution or similar


Bees know how to do basic maths

Our insects are in big trouble

Great photos of animals interrupting humans’ sports

Why cats could steal dogs’ jobs


  1. How are the bees trained?
  2. Why are bees better than dogs for detecting landmines?
  3. What disaster happened in 1986?
  4. Name three reasons bees could be better for these jobs than dogs.
  5. How did Dr Gillanders come to be stung?


1. Bees v Dogs
Pick a side: bees or dogs? Then pretend you are an explosive detecting member of this species and write a compelling argument about why you should be used in the field instead of your competitor. Your argument needs to highlight your strengths and point out your opponent’s weaknesses. You will find information to help with this task in the news article and should be able to think of others that are not mentioned.

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English

2. Extension
To better understand the important work these trained bees will do, find out the following:

  • The name of a country that has concealed landmines and how many mines are estimated to be there.
  • When and why landmines were concealed there.
  • How long landmines remain active.

Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, History

With a partner see if you can identify all the doing words/verbs in this text. Highlight them in yellow and then make a list of them all down your page. Now see if you and your partner can come up with a synonym for the chosen verb. Make sure it still makes sense in the context it was taken from.

Try to replace some of the original verbs with your synonyms and discuss if any are better and why.

HAVE YOUR SAY: What else do you think we could train bees to do?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

Extra Reading in science