While the marijuana laws across the United States continue to change at an impressive rate—not to mention the advent of major drug overhauls in countries like Portugal and Uruguay—it has become increasingly more difficult for the soldiers of the drug war to use dope-sniffing dogs to effectively take down cartel mules trying to squeeze illegal narcotics into the black market.
However, a group of scientists believe they have found a solution to the diminishing K-9 narcotics infantry—honeybees that have been trained to detect illegal substances.
Researchers at the University of Cologne in Germany recently published a study in the journal Plos One, entitled “Detection of Illicit Drugs by Trained Honeybees,” which details their success at pinpointing how insects will replace the drug-sniffing hounds of the world. The team began by testing the sniffer capabilities of three particular insects: the grapevine moth, the hissing cockroach and the western honeybee. Ironically, it was the honeybee that scientists determined was the best possible candidate for conducting drug stings because of its unprecedented ability to individually alert on every substance from cannabis to caffeine.
“Trained insects have been proposed as alternative biosensors for illegal drugs because their antennae are the most sensitive natural organs discovered thus far for the detection of volatiles,” the study authors wrote. “Insects can be produced and reared inexpensively, and they can be conditioned rapidly to react to specific volatiles.”
In states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use, many drug dogs are being forced into retirement because their abilities no longer match the needs of local and state police departments. Drug-sniffing dogs, while they have a superior olfaction, give the same alert for all illegal substances, and it is difficult to retrain these beasts to detect amounts that only surpass the boundaries of state law. This poses a major problem for law enforcement agencies that could potentially set themselves up for a lawsuit by conducting an illegal search based on a signal from a dog that does not understand that possession of certain amounts of marijuana is now legal.
“If a dog hits on marijuana, you don’t know whether you’re going to find one ounce in that suitcase or six pounds,” Steve Davis, a spokesman for the Lakewood Police Department in Colorado, recently told Bloomberg.
Scientists believe this is where the honeybee could become a powerful tool in terms of combating the black market drug trade. Not only can the bees be trained to detect various illegal substances, but they also are inexpensive to produce and maintain. What’s more, unlike dogs, bees do not seek human companionship, and only under the most bizarre circumstances could a relationship be developed between an insect and a human. This factor, according to researchers, would eliminate the potential for biased detections by drug dogs simply trying to please their master.
Although the latest research may sound a bit far fetched, this is actually not the first time honeybees have been experimented with for law enforcement and military operations. For almost two decades, scientists have been working with honeybees as an alternative to dogs in the detection of explosive devices. Researchers from the Defense Advanced Research Laboratory, which is an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, previously conducted trials with honeybees right here in the United States. While the focus of these experiments was to train them to locate bombs, the federal government reportedly also financed research aimed at training bees to detect illegal drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine in airports across the nation.
In the latest study, scientists conclude that while honeybees displayed between 80 to 95 percent accuracy in the detection of illegal drugs, more research is needed before drug-sniffing bees become a reality.