Since 1960, over 100 million landmines have been planted around the world. From Afghanistan to Angola; from Bosnia to Vietnam; or from Cambodia to Iraq — the mines, sometimes costing only a few dollars, are often targeted at civilians with intent to maim and terrorize. By many estimates, a quarter of landmine explosions occur with non-military targets. Approximately 100,000 mines are removed annually by demining squads, but that fraction still leaves millions waiting in the ground.
Even when a section of land is cleared of landmines and deemed “safe,” that designation is an illusion. No land cleaned of its mines ever reaches a “zero mine” level; isolated mines still wait patiently.
And those isolated landmines — forgotten by the demining squads — those are the mines honey bees may be able to locate.
On its face, the belief that honey bees will seek out buried munitions is ridiculous; but not to Croatian researcher Nikola Kezic of Zagreb University. Bees can smell a flower from a couple of miles away, and Kezic wants to use that scent identification principal with TNT. Kezic’s premise: With conditioning, bees will associate food with TNT scent.
As described in Science World Report: “Researchers mixed their food with trace elements of trinitrotoluene (TNT). This caused the bees to make the connection that the smell of TNT was associated with food. In order to confirm that their training had worked, the scientists then placed regular food mixtures in a tent with a TNT food mixture. The bees sought out the food mixed with TNT, which showed that the training had, in fact, worked.”
The research is part of a multi-million dollar EU effort to find and eliminate landmines. According to the Associated Press, “Once the experiment with bees proves scientifically reliable, the idea is to use them in the areas that have already been de-mined, where their movement would be followed with heat-seeking cameras.”
Kezic has plenty of landmine ground to experiment with. Croatia, during the Balkan wars in the early 1990s, was covered with almost 100,000 mines, many of those buried without pattern or design. International press coverage of landmines tends to go toward countries such as Egypt, Angola and Cambodia — each with millions of mines. However, Croatia is blanketed with 143 landmines per square mile — one of the highest rates in the world. Almost 466 square miles (298,240 acres) of Croatia may contain landmines.
It’s ironic that as Croatia prepares for EU membership this summer, other European countries are cursed with unexploded munitions as well — only from more distant wars. From 1914-1918, over 1 billion shells were fired across World War 1 battlefields, and with a dud rate often running as high as 25 percent, the math is deadly —and timeless. Scores of farmers and hundreds of deminers have been killed by shell explosions in the years since. (Fatalities were extremely high in 1991, with 36 French farmers killed.)
The demining squads may be busy in Croatia for hundreds of years to come. In almost 20 years since the fighting ended in Croatia, the AP reports that 316 people have died after stepping on landmines. Kezic believes he’s close to proving that honey bees can provide at least a degree of extra safety. “It is not a problem for a bee to learn the smell of an explosive, which it can then search.”
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