The easily-trained insects may be stinging dogs for the job of smelling-out trouble

Rin Tin Tin, move over. Turner, trade in Hooch. A wasp’s fine-tuned olfactory sense can outdo a dog’s 10 times out of 10.

According to a paper slated for publication in the January/February issue of Biotechnology Progress, wasps can easily be trained to sniff out any odor in a matter of minutes. The report also states that a commercial device employing the insects’ keen sense of smell may be available in five to 10 years.

It was W. Joe Lewis, of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, who first guessed that wasps can quickly learn to recognize new odors. According to his research partner, the University of Georgia’s Glen Rains, Lewis, “hypothesized that because there’s such a wide variety of habitats that they have to navigate in, [wasps] have to be able to learn odors in association with the resource to become really efficient at what they do.”

The two researchers have long known that wasps can smell faint odors from plants. In 1990, they demonstrated that plants send out chemical distress signals when they are under attack by caterpillars. Wasps smell these signals and flock to the plant, where they lay eggs inside unsuspecting host caterpillars.

This gruesome process may not work so well for the doomed, egg-infested caterpillar, but for the plant and the wasp, it’s beautiful symbiosis. It’s also a great reason to suspect that wasps have an extraordinary sense of smell.

Rains and Lewis realized they could train a wasp to associate common smells, such as chocolate and vanilla, with food or available egg-hosts. To create an association with food, the researchers fed wasps sugar water while they releasing each odor. The wasps quickly learned to relate the two substances to the smell. They then progressed to odors not found in a wasp’s natural habitat.

“So far we’ve really looked at a wide variety of things and they’ve been able to detect everything they’ve been exposed to,” Rains said. And don’t think that wasps can only pick up the trail of strong odors. Lewis said that the wasp detects scents as weak as four or five parts per billion air molecules, a very faint smell.

Rains and Lewis have perfected the training process—they can create an association between any odor and food with only three feedings over the course of five minutes. While this may seem extraordinarily efficient, bear in mind that an adult wasp only lives for a couple of weeks.

Lewis said any number of industries could use these wasps to their advantage.

Agricultural groups could find pests or diseases in crops, land and fertilizer. The police could find the decaying flesh of corpses at a suspected crime scene. Doctors could even diagnose tumors, ulcers or other maladies just by smell alone. Border patrols could train wasps to detect explosives or drugs.

You’ll never witness police officers walking their wasps on leashes through Heathrow or see the main concourse of New York’s Grand Central Station buzzing with a swarm of dangerous insects. Rather, you might see the device Rains and Lewis invented to contain the wasps and safely monitor their motion.

“What we did was approach the idea of containerizing into a little small capsule area and then pulling the air sources over them,” Lewis said. “They converge to the inlet quickly and the little camera picks up that all the little dark bodies have suddenly converged around the intake hole in this device.”

Rains and Lewis named their contraption in homage to the canines who may soon be out of a job. They call it the “wasp hound.”

Originally published October 21, 2005

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