Scientists in the Netherlands have trained bees to identify the coronavirus in an inventive and speedy new way to detect the deadly disease that has killed millions across the world.
A group of Dutch scientists at Wageningen University in Lelystad, Netherlands, trained bees to extend their tongues when they smell the coronavirus, the researchers said in a press release.
“Each time the bees were exposed to the scent from an infected sample, they received a sugar water solution reward,” the group wrote. “The bees extended their tongues to collect the sugar water solution. By repeating this action several times, the bees associated the sugar reward with the scent as the stimulus.”
Eventually, the bees began sticking out their tongues, called proboscises, when exposed to the coronavirus even when they did not receive a reward, the researchers said.
The bees used in the research were regular honeybees from a beekeeper and were placed in harnesses for the experiment.
“A trained bee can detect an infected sample within a few seconds,” the group wrote. Most currently available coronavirus tests take much longer, even hours or days, to obtain a result.
The scientists performed the research with more than 150 bees at Wageningen Bioveterinary Research’s biosafety laboratory. They first used samples from minks infected with the coronavirus and later moved on to training bees to recognize the virus in human samples.
The researchers expressed optimism that people across the globe could use their bee method of detecting the coronavirus. The results of the research have not yet been published or peer-reviewed, however.
“Bees are globally accessible, so the only thing people need is a machine to be able to train bees,” they wrote.
The scientists said they have already developed a prototype of a machine called “BeeSense” that can automatically train multiple bees at once and then deploy the trained bees for diagnosis. They argued that the machine would be useful for “low-income countries that face challenges in accessing infrastructure and high-tech technologies.”
Wim van der Poel, a Wageningen University professor, said they believe the bee coronavirus tests will have a 95 percent accuracy rate if multiple bees use their finely-tuned olfactory senses to sniff the samples.
“Our first goal was to demonstrate that we could train bees to do this, and that’s where we succeeded,” he said. “And now we are calculating, and we are continuing the work to see how sensitive the method is.”
However, Dirk de Graaf, a professor who studies bees at Ghent University in Belgium, cautioned not to expect the intriguing new testing method to replace conventional coronavirus testing any time soon.
“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,” de Graaf told Reuters.