The new mine hunters (Croatia)
Swarms of honey bees buzz over Croatian meadows in an experimental hunt for explosives, making them new recruits in authorities' efforts to clear away thousands of potentially deadly landmines. Researchers have been carrying out tests to see how well the bees can detect the scent of explosives, a project that in turn could help rid Croatia of the estimated 250,000 mines left from the bloody 1991-1995 Serbo-Croatian war.
"So far we had excellent results, although the desired level of bees' sensitivity is still not achieved. It is now only up to our perseverance," Nikola Kezic, an agriculture professor at Zagreb University, said. The bees are being used mainly to check areas that have already been cleared by deminers in case any have been overlooked.
"For now we don't take them to minefields before the method is validated, but instead we use test fields," Kezic said, adding that one of the advantages of the method is that it takes only four days to train a new hive. Although still in testing phase, experts place high hopes in the project, as it would significantly decrease demining costs. It is being developed jointly by the university's agriculture faculty and the Centre for Testing, Development and Training (CTRO).
Since the end of the war, 450 people have been killed by landmines and 1,800 have been injured, according to national demining body, the Croatian Mine Action Centre. About 1,100 square kilometres remain infested with mines, amounting to two per cent of Croatia's territory.
In addition to the 250,000 leftover mines, an equal number of unexploded projectiles are also believed to remain scattered throughout 12 of the country's 21 counties. "This project has very good prospects, although it is still in the phase of research," said Nikola Pavkovic, director of CTRO, which was founded by the Croatian Mine Action Centre (HCR) to test and develop new methods and equipment.
Pavkovic pointed to similar research in other countries, notably the United States, Canada and South Africa. "Having in mind the experiences from other countries in using bees in detecting explosives, this could contribute to increasing the security of deminers and citizens," he said.
Bees are trained by placing small amounts of TNT in cups next to their feeders. Researchers are now trying to train them to detect the smell of the tiniest traces of explosives. "When we set a TNT sample, bees come to it, but the scent in the minefield near a landmine hidden under ground is much weaker and that is why we want to increase bees' interest for much weaker intensity of the smell," said Kezic.
Bees have long been trained in the pollination of field crops, Kezic explained. In a minefield, swarms of bees searching for food are followed by thermic cameras that can show them detecting mines. Experts say the method's low cost would greatly contribute to efforts to clear mine-infested areas. Those efforts are mostly financed by the state and state-owned companies, while much of the rest of the money comes from foreign donations.
"The biggest problem we are facing in the process of demining the country is meager financial means," Pavkovic said. Croatia has pledged to clear its territory of landmines by 2009, but the job is expected to take several decades, with the total cost estimated at 1.3 billion euros ($1.8 billion).
According to HCR, $48 million were spent on demining works in 2006 that were conducted by 28 local companies and non-governmental organisation Norwegian People's Aid. Authorities also have to dissuade farmers who, tired of waiting for deminers, decide to do the perilous jobs themselves, notably in the fertile eastern Slavonia region.
"Thanks to a strong media campaign, cases of citizens losing patience in the slow process of demining and going to their fields by themselves are becoming rare," said Pavkovic. Kezic said the aim is not to replace existing methods used by some 600 deminers and 130 dogs, along with demining machines.
"No field is ever 100 per cent cleared, and that is why any method by which we could additionally increase security is priceless."