The imminent threat posed by COVID-19 has seen a wide range of left-field solutions emerge out of labs over the past year as scientists scurry to stem the spread of the unprecedented pandemic.

In February, scientists at the US' University of South Carolina developed an artificial intelligence capable of generating vaccine designs in mere seconds, a process which has historically taken years to carry out by teams of researchers.

The demand for fast and reliable testing remains stronger than ever as infection rates continue to soar around the globe, prompting a number of alternatives to the traditional PCR test. In July 2020, a team of researchers for BMC Infectious Diseases revealed dogs could be used to detect coronavirus in patients at a success rate of 94 per cent.

Now, scientists in the Netherlands have found another way to detect coronavirus: bees.

The benefits bees bring to the global ecosystem are already well-documented, but now it appears the world's one and only suppliers of honey have added a new skill to their resume.

Controlled tests using 150 bees at the biosafety laboratory of Wageningen Bioveterinary Research revealed strong results. By using sugar water solution as a reward, scientists were able to train the bees to detect positive samples of coronavirus collected from SARS-CoV-2 infected minks.

After a lengthy training period, the bees were able to detect coronavirus in samples collected from humans.

"The bees extended their tongues to collect the sugar water solution. By repeating this action several times, the bees associated the sugar reward with the scent as the stimulus," the report stated.

 

"With this repeated conditioning, soon enough bees started extending their tongues out for the scent alone, with no reward offered as a follow-up."

According to InsectSense, Bees have extremely sensitive olfactory receptors that can sense volatile compounds in the range of parts per billion to even parts per trillion. This ability makes them ideal for detection of VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) that might be present in the environment in extremely low quantities.

Researchers have already developed prototypes of a new machine, "BeeSense", which can automatically train large amounts of bees simultaneously, including a biosensor that deploys the trained bees for diagnosis.

 

Scientists conducting the Wageningen study are confident the BeeSense could act an effective diagnostic system for developing countries with limited access to high-end technology.

"No one is saying they can replace a PCR machine, but they could be very promising," veterinary neurologist Holger Volk told Nature.

Coincidentally, next Thursday (May 20) is World Bee Day, so don't forget to raise a glass for the little buggers.

 

Originally published as Lab reveals bizarre COVID breakthrough