Yes the bees!!! Bees are amazing little creatures. They do so much for the ecology of the planet. When I first typed that I wrote “…our planet” but then thought better of it. The majority of life on this planet is invertebrate. Ten percent of the terrestrial biomass is termites & ants. There are over 400,000 species of beetles identified to date and more on the way I’m sure. But when someone mentions they study insects bees are one of the first that will come to mind. Often people will think of butterflies first but I’ve found that many people seem to store the knowledge that butterflies are insects in a separate part of their brain. Sort of as if they think something that pretty couldn’t possibly be an insect. To which I say, “There are THOUSANDS of ‘pretty’ insects that are not butterflies!”
But back to the bees. In my studies (i.e. watching tv while avoiding actual work) I heard a nifty tidbit of information about Honey Bees. Yes, we all know about their decline and all of that (and “all of that” is a big can of worms I’ll avoid for now) but there are people who are actually using bees to sniff out bombs and other contraband at airports! How cool is that!?! The principles are essentially the same as those we all remember from Dr. Pavlov and his dogs. The classic Pavlovian response of the dogs when, after a period of training, the dogs were conditioned to salivate to the sound of a bell because it had become associated with food (ring bell, dog gets food).
Bees operate quite similarly to the dogs and us for that matter. By placing the bee in a small container, adding the odor you want it to detect in the box along with some sugar, repeat a few times and soon the bee has the same reaction to that odor as Pavlov’s dogs had to that bell. They seek out the smell because they associate it with sugar! A British company (Inscentinel) has conditioned bees to signal not only for explosive residues in suitcases and other luggage, but also in minefields. According to them they are ‘cheaper to keep and quicker to train then dogs.’
This idea was inspired by the work of Dr. Bitterman in Hawaii back in the 1980’s. Their research showed at the honey bee would extend their proboscis when their highly sensitive antennae were touched with sugar water. Some flies have a similar reaction to certain “flavors” coming into contact with their feet (yup, they taste with their feet!) Dr Bitterman and Co. took this a step further, much like Pavlov and wanted to see if you could associate the an item, in their case peppermint, with the sugar to elicit the same response. By pairing the peppermint scent with sugar, followed eventually by just the peppermint scent, the bees learned that peppermint was a source of sugar. And yes, I used the word learned. These same researchers have recently shown that honey bees are capable of actual learning and have demonstrated as such in a variety of experiments.
So there you have it. A few more ways how insects are totally amazing. And now a little about Pavlov’s less well known experiments on cats courtesy of the incomparable Eddie Izzard.