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Bees can also smell coronavirus – how and why?

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Manish Saini
Manish works as a Journalist and writer at Revyuh.com. He has studied Political Science and graduated from Delhi University. He is a Political engineer, fascinated by politics, and traditional businesses. He is also attached to many NGO's in the country and helping poor children to get the basic education. Email: Manish (at) revyuh (dot) com

Bees (just like dogs) can identify smell from miles away. Now Danish scientists have managed to get a group of 150 bees to recognize the smell that SARS-CoV-2 generates in the body of infected people. They do it with just a few minutes of training! They extend their tongues every time they smell it.

Like other diseases, COVID-19 has a distinctive odor. Or rather, the metabolic changes that the virus generates in the body, produce a particular smell. 

Scientists from the start-up InsectSense and Wageningen Bioveterinary Research at the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands came up with the idea that they could train pollinators to recognize samples infected with SARS-CoV-2.

Bees to smell the coronavirus? But how…

The bees learned to recognize the smell of COVID-19 through a method of “Pavlovian conditioning”: each time the bees were exposed to the smell of an infected sample, they received a sugar-water solution reward, according to the University website.

“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,” they explain. Soon, the bees began to extend their tongues whenever they smelled the scent, with no reward being offered.

Why train bees to detect COVID-19?

Now the scientists intend to go one step further, and “work on scalability” of the approach so that bees can be trained around the world.

InsectSense has already developed prototypes of a machine that can automatically train multiple bees simultaneously. They called the technology BeeSense, and say that it can be a “very effective diagnostic system for low-income countries that face challenges in accessing infrastructure and high-tech technologies.”

In addition to the method being inexpensive, this technology could reduce the waiting time for COVID-19 diagnostic test results, which can take hours or days, to just seconds.

However, Dirk de Graaf, professor of bees, insects, and animal immunology at the University of Ghent (Belgium), told Reuters that he does not believe the technique will replace more conventional forms of COVID-analysis. 19 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 commented.

In turn, De Graaf noted that the “insect sniffing” technique was tested in the 1990s by the United States Department of Defense to detect explosives and toxins. Moths, bees, and wasps were used “for security purposes to detect explosives as well as for medical diagnosis” and were successful.

However, he believes that too little is still known about the evidence from the Wageningen scientists.

Bees in our day to day

Humans use bees for scientific experiments, but we complicate their existence with other activities. Intensive agricultural practices, changes in land use, pesticides (including neonicotinoid insecticides), and climate change have affected them tremendously.

Together, these activities have caused the bee population to decline “in a worrying way” in recent years, and now they are in particular danger: almost 35% are at risk of disappearing soon, according to information from the United Nations(UN). And this represents a great danger for humans because to a great extent we depend on their survival.

Why are bees so important in our life?

Bees are pollinators, and pollination is a fundamental process for the survival of ecosystems, “essential” for the production and reproduction of many crops and wild plants, says the UN.

Almost 90% of flowering plants depend on pollination to reproduce. 75% of the world’s food crops depend to some extent on pollination.

35% of the world’s agricultural lands depend on pollination.

In addition, pollinators are essential to conserving biodiversity. If bee populations continue to decline, some nutritious crops – such as fruits, nuts, and many vegetables – will increasingly be replaced by staple crops such as rice, corn, and potatoes, which could eventually lead to an unbalanced diet.

Image Credit: iStock

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