Honey bees can sniff out COVID in a matter of seconds. Here’s what that could mean

honey bee covid
Photo via hedera.baltica/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

Honey bees may be on their way to becoming the newest, and least expensive, method of detecting COVID-19. Researchers in the Netherlands are training bees, which have an extremely keen sense of smell, to react to the scent of COVID for the purpose of diagnosis. 

Bees can reportedly detect COVID by smell within moments, and that may eliminate the need for lengthy wait times following a COVID test.

Researchers are exploring this possibility through a simple training process. They presented 150 honey bees, strapped into harnesses, with negative and positive test samples of COVID-19. When the bees were presented with a positive sample, they were then immediately offered sugar water. Trained bees then stuck their tongues out whenever a positive COVID sample is presented to them, in anticipation of the sweet treat to follow. 

As noted by Wim van der Poel, a professor of virology at Wageningen University, bees are a plentiful and inexpensive option when it comes to detecting COVID-19. Bees can also be used to test in areas where access to other COVID-19 tests is limited.

“You can train bees, also, in regions where there are no test materials available,” van der Poel said. “You could use the system to smell coronavirus-positive samples.”

Next steps are simple, according to van der Poel. The machine that holds the bees during training and testing needs to be improved, he says, before it can be mass-produced. Once it’s improved upon, van der Poel believes the new process could proceed “pretty rapidly.”

Not everyone is on board with the creative new approach to testing, however. Dirk de Graaf, a professor at Ghent University, has been quoted as feeling hesitant about the bee method.

“I would prefer to carry out tests using the classic diagnostic tools rather than using honeybees,” de Graff said, according to translations from Deutsche Welle News. “I am a huge bee lover, but I would use them for other purposes than detecting COVID-19.”

Bees aren’t the only beings that are being trained to sniff out COVID. In a few countries around the globe, dogs are being used for the same task.

Sources: CBC, DW News

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