Bees learn to recognise the smell of Covid

A year and a half after the outbreak of the pandemic in which we were involved, Wageningen University in the Netherlands and the start-up InsectSense have completed a bioveterinary study in which they discovered that bees can recognise Covid-19 by smell.

As early as June 2021, a British company created a device that could recognise the metabolic changes in a person infected with the Sars-Cov-2 virus, but the results were not satisfactory.
Now, the Dutch university has taken a step forward in collaboration with InsectSense (a start-up that has always been concerned with analysing insect behaviour based on the various stimuli to which they are subjected) by using bees. In fact, as the authors of the experiment report, ‘when a person contracts the virus, metabolic changes take place in his or her body that change its smell. Humans cannot recognise this, but insects can.

Just as the dogs of the famous behavioural doctor Ivan Pavlov had learnt to associate a sound stimulus with the subsequent arrival of food, these bees were trained to recognise ‘the smell of coronavirus’ from an infected specimen by the same method, in exchange for a reward in the form of water and sugar which they absorb by pulling out their little tongues. With repetition, they learned to remember it and are now able to recognise it in seconds even without a reward. They are faster than an antigen swab!
The scientists assure that this method could be very effective and safe if more bees were used at the same time, as this would increase the number and accuracy of the data collected.

In addition, the scientists involved in the experiment are currently developing ‘LumiNose’, a prototype of a biochip that can replicate the mechanism by which bees identify odours. Given that a person who contracts certain types of disease alters his or her smell, that of sweat and saliva, this prototype could be used in the future for early diagnosis.
It’s all still to be assessed, but for now this is excellent news if we think that bees are not the only insects able to recognise and remember smells. It is just a question of teaching them how to do it.

However, one last thought is in order. Many have wondered how bee-friendly the study is. The scientists answer this question by assuring us that there is a great respect for the intelligence of these tiny insects; without their mnemonic and receptive abilities, nothing would have been concluded. They are keen to emphasise their deep devotion to what nature creates. As one of the researchers puts it, ‘for years we have invested negatively in nature, exploiting it. Now we are trying to take all the positive things it can give us. Bees are so quick to learn that we only need a few sessions and then let them go. We don’t want to keep them in a laboratory for their whole life, we are not that kind of scientist”.


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