Remember, back in school, hearing about Pavlov’s dog that learned to drool when it heard a bell ring? That method of “classical conditioning” is how Dr. Andrew Sutherland, a researcher with the University of California Davis Plant Pathology Department, is training honey bees to detect plant disease in agricultural crops.
Here’s the story, straight from Dr. Sutherland:
The problem that we face in California and in the world really is that there are many plant pathogens infecting our crops and many times we apply chemical fungicides to combat that. In our lab we hope to teach honey bees to respond to plant pathogens in the field so that we may detect those plant pathogens and reduce the fungicide applications. Insects in general and honey bees included are excellent vapor sensors and have excellent chemo sensors on their antennas so they’re able to detect organic molecules in the air at the low parts per billion. Bees can be taught to associate an odor with a reward through classical conditioning. First, we restrain the honey bees after collection, we restrain the honey bees inside a harness of sorts such that their heads and antenna are protruding then we expose the bees to the smell of an infected grape leaf or grape berry and we feed the bees at the same. So, in time, the bees learn to associate this odor with the sugar reward. So, the next step is actual detection in the field and this is accomplished through some prototype equipment that’s been designed by my collaborators at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The bees that have been trained are placed inside and when they encounter the smell within the box, they respond and this information is relayed to a computer and we were able to see that indeed we have detected the pathogen in the field. The ultimate goal here is to be able to detect plant pathogens in the field earlier than you can do with your eye so that we have an early warning system and we can better plan fungicide applications to be more efficient in time and space.