A SPECIALLY trained army dog is being used to sniff out bumblebees for scientists to discover why the pesky insects are in decline.
Toby the springer spaniel scours fields for hours searching for the bugs and is rewarded with a tennis ball when he comes up with the goods.
But the playful four-year-old has yet to be stung – despite rooting around in grass and shrubs with his tiny nose to uncover nests.
Now a group of scientists are hoping Toby’s powerful sense of smell will eventually help to discover where the yellow and black buzzers have disappeared to.
The University of Stirling research team used cash from a £110,000 grant to fund the three-year project.
And Professor Dave Goulson, who is heading the task, said Toby’s well-honed skills in sniffing out explosives for the army made him the ideal candidate for the bumblebee mission.
He said: “We’ve always known that bumblebee nests are smelly but they are very hard to find just walking around as a human being.
“We noticed that badgers quite often dig them up at night and in the morning we would find a hole in the ground and the remains of the nest left over.
“We figured that if a badger could do it then a dog might just be able to do it and that’s where we are now with Toby.
“We’re building on the training he had initially with the army and fine-tuning his bumblebee nest-finding ability but so far he has been amazingly good.”
Professor Goulson’s team started by hiding tiny bits of moss from the bees’ nests in massive fields and the clever pup soon hunted them down.
Now Toby is being used to find nests in farmland across the country and once they have been uncovered the team hope to reveal why the pollen-munching bumblebees are facing extinction.
Prof Goulson said: “Some species have gone extinct completely in the UK and we really need to understand why and do something to stop it.
“The reason we need Toby is that he should enable us to find lots of nests early in the year and we can study those nests and see if they do better in some environments than others.”
When he is not working Toby is looked after by Steph O’Connor – a Phd student specialising in the ecology of bees.
And despite also making a great pet with his friendly and adventurous personality, Steph insists Toby is kept under a strict regime.
She said: “He’s not allowed to play with sticks or frisbees or anything like that. He has to find bees and the only playtime he gets is when he is rewarded with a tennis ball which he loves.
“All summer I have been out every day looking for bees and he’s been out running around doing his work, it’s not hard for him – he does enjoy his job.
“We’re pretty much a partnership for life. He’s with me all the time but he is a working dog and he even comes to work with me every day to the university.”
The three-year project at Stirling’s school of biological and environmental sciences is being funded by the Leverhulme Trust and Steph and Toby are sponsored by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.