HONEY bees have been used to detect an uncharted minefield in under nine hours, scientists revealed today.
The insects roamed a test area in the former Yugoslavian warzone where mines were known to have been planted but their exact position was a mystery.
Minute traces of explosives were found on the bees when they returned to their hive, confirming the presence of mines in the area they had been exploring.
Bees then returned to the area and their movements were monitored by a drone to confirm the precise location of individual mines.
The successful test means it should be possible to identify minefields around the world more quickly, cheaply and safely than is presently possible.
Dr Ross Gillanders a physicist from St Andrews University helped design equipment which allowed them to sample the bees for tiny traces of explosives
The use of bees to detect explosives is being researched by academics in Scotland and Croatia.
Last June, the team confirmed that bees had been able to pinpoint individual mines. But the new tests are even more significant because they show bees can detect previously uncharted minefields.
Dr Gillanders said the area to be explored was marked out with sugar syrup feeders to encourage the bees to stay within a fixed area as large as 5 kilometre squared (2 square miles).
He said: “This will have a positive impact on public health, public safety, the environment, and quality of life for people in contaminated areas.
“Bees have an advantage in that they cannot accidentally set off landmines and can cover ground not readily accessible for dogs, and bees do not require rest stops.
“This time we let the bees fly around freely across a wider area of land. We artificially contained them in a specific area by using sugar syrup in a feeder that they return to as bees love it.
“We’ve had three proper tests results and it is getting better each time.”
When the bees return to their hives, they crawl through tubes containing “preconcentrators” – material that “traps” any trace of explosives.
Dr Gillanders said: “It’s a quick method to identify a contaminated area of land. It can take up to 30 seconds for the bees to pick up traces of explosives, which is much faster than a lab based approach and it is portable.
“It takes up to eight hours to discover a minefield using the bees with the preconcentraters.”
Incredible footage taken by the researchers shows the honey bees in action.
The clip begins with a drone showing the area used for the fieldtrial to test the bees ability to find the minefields and mines.
It then jumps to the bees flying around the area and then shows the bees crawling in and out of the tubes with the preconcentrators to get into their hives before flying away.
Real-world tests using bees from local hives started in Croatia in November 2017 and was funded by NATO Science for Peace and Security.
The team have already proved that once the general location of mines is known the bees can pinpoint individual weapons. A drone monitors the movement of bees and can pinpoint a precise location from the behaviour of the insects.
There are an estimated 110 million landmines lost across the world which kill or injure between 15,000 to 20,000 people annually.