“Homeland security wasps” sniff out explosives, drugs

Wasps can be trained in minutes to sniff out odors given off by explosives and drugs, perhaps someday replacing dogs.

Scientists say a species of non-stinging wasps can be trained in only five minutes and are just as sensitive to odors as man’s best friend, which can require up to six months of training at a cost of about $15,000 per dog.

With the use of a handheld device that contains the wasps but allows them to do their work, researchers have been able to use the insects to detect target odors such as a toxin that grows on corn and peanuts, and a chemical used in certain explosives.

“There’s a tremendous need for a very flexible and mobile chemical detector,” said U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist Joe Lewis, who has been studying wasps since the 1960s. “Our best devices that we have currently are very cumbersome, expensive and highly fragile.”

The “Wasp Hound” research by Lewis and University of Georgia agricultural engineer Glen Rains is part of a larger government project to determine if insects and even reptiles or crustaceans could be recruited for defense work. That project has already resulted in scientists refining the use of bees as land-mine detectors. . . .

Rains said the wasps can be trained to detect a specific odor very quickly. The researchers expose hungry wasps to the target odor, then let them feed on sugar water for 10 seconds and then give them a one-minute break. After three repetitions of sniffing and feeding, the wasps associate the odor with feeding.

Since the scientists couldn’t put leashes on their trained wasps, they needed a way to contain them while monitoring their reactions to odors.

“What we have . . . is a technology-free organism that you can quickly program and use in a highly mobile way,” said Lewis, who believes the Wasp Hound could be used to search for explosives at airports, locate bodies, monitor crops for toxins and detect diseases such as cancer from the odors in a person’s breath. — Associated Press

Other companies have been doing similar research with bees with about the same results.

The Wasp Hound is a 10 inch long piece of PVC pipe with a hole in one end and a fan in the other, and contains a transparent ventilated capsule with five wasps. It has an integrated USB webcam which downloads its data in realtime to a connected laptop PC. If the wasps detect the target scent, then they congregate to one end of the capsule, presenting a dark image; if not, they are evenly distributed throughout the capsule, and the image is lighter.

The non-stinging wasp species, Microplitis croceipes, works for 48 hours and then is released into the wild. The wasps’ lifespan is about two to three weeks.

The project was funded by the University of Georgia, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Defense.

OK, this is one of the more interesting homeland security technologies I’ve seen in a while. I imagine the only people who would object to something like this idea is PETA, but then again most PETA members need to be locked in a room full of African killer bees.

One thought on ““Homeland security wasps” sniff out explosives, drugs

  • January 19, 2006 at 12:09 pm


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