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Sniffer bees busy on COVID test training

Reuters, May 10, 2021 6:45PM Kids News

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Bees have an excellent sense of smell, which means scientists can train them to sniff out traces of coronavirus in COVID-19 test samples. media_cameraBees have an excellent sense of smell, which means scientists can train them to sniff out traces of coronavirus in COVID-19 test samples.


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Scientists have trained bees — which have a highly developed sense of smell — to identify samples infected with COVID-19. This could cut waiting times for test results to just seconds.

To train the bees, researchers in the bio-veterinary research laboratory at Wageningen University in the Netherlands gave the bees sugary water as a reward after showing them samples infected with COVID-19. They would get no reward after being shown a non-infected sample.

Having got used to the system, the bees were able to spontaneously* extend their tongues to receive a reward when presented with an infected sample, said Wim van der Poel, a professor of virology who took part in the project.

“We collect normal honeybees from a beekeeper and we put the bees in harnesses,” he said. “Right after presenting a positive sample we also present them with sugar water. And what the bees do is they extend their proboscis* to take the sugar water.”

The extending of the bees’ straw-like tongues to drink is confirmation of a positive coronavirus test result, according to the researchers.

It can take hours or days to get a COVID-19 test result, but the response from the bees is immediate. The method is also cheap, potentially making it useful for countries where tests are scarce, they said.

Inside Gosford's COVID testing clinic media_cameraA lab scientist prepares COVID-19 test samples at the NSW Health Pathology Gosford lab. Although test times are much faster now than at the start of the pandemic, it can still take hours to get results. Bee-test results are instant. Picture: News Local/Troy Snook

But Dirk de Graaf, a professor who studies bees, insects and animal immunology* at Ghent University in Belgium, said he did not see the technique replacing current forms of COVID-19 testing in the near future.

“It is a good idea, but I would prefer to carry out tests using the classic diagnostic* tools rather than using honeybees for this. I am a huge bee lover, but I would use the bees for other purposes than detecting COVID-19,” he said.

Dutch bees trained to detect COVID-19

The technique of “insect sniffing” was effectively tested by the US Department of Defense to detect explosives* and toxins* in the 1990s, Prof de Graaf said.

Moths, bees and wasps were used “for safety purposes to detect explosives as well as for medical diagnosis,” he said.

But, he said, too little is known about the Wageningen testing to determine its true effectiveness, although he was open to the idea of bee testing providing an indication of illness when PCR* tests were unavailable.

PCR tests are considered the best or gold standard* type of test for COVID-19, though they do require several hours, trained staff and complex equipment. Most COVID-19 tests in Australia are PCR tests.


  • spontaneously: suddenly, without any obvious cause or planning
  • proboscis: long, sucking mouth part of some insects
  • immunology: science of immunity from disease or illness
  • diagnostic: to do with diagnosing an illness or a problem
  • explosives: things that explode, such as bombs
  • toxins: poisons
  • PCR: polymerase chain reaction
  • gold standard: the best


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  1. What have the bees learnt to do?
  2. In which country were the researchers?
  3. Which insects were used by the US Department of Defense?
  4. How did the scientists keep the bees where they needed them?
  5. What is the name of the COVID test most often used in Australia?


1. Bee Smells
How handy that bees can be trained to be so useful! Work with a partner to brainstorm some other ways bees could be used in science, medical and defence industries to help solve a problem or dangerous activity.

Record your answers in a table like this one media_cameraRecord your answers in a table like this one

Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science, Critical and creative thinking

2. Extension
Should we be using these trained bees to help out COVID testing in underprivileged countries such as India while they are trying to control the COVID pandemic? How might they help reduce the number of cases?

Time: allow 10 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science, Critical and creative thinking

Opener Up-Level It
Make a list of all the openers in the article. Pick three that repeat and see if you can replace them with another word, or shuffle the order of the sentence to bring a new opener to the front.

Don’t forget to re-read the sentence to make sure it still makes sense, and that it actually sounds better.

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