Police Bees: How Honey Bees Can Help Tackle Illegal Drug Cultivation
The recent decline in honey bee populations has brought about a pollination crisis from which we all may suffer. Apis mellifera (the honey bee) accounts for roughly 80 percent of the world’s pollination services, adds $30bn and $15bn per year to European and US agricultural crops respectively, and pollinates human food valued at around $350bn. This is a pretty good reason to prioritise restoring their numbers. However there is another service with which honey bees can provide us, and another reason to act against their decline; they now work for the police.
As pharmaceutical companies work to enhance and simplify methods of genetically engineering plants to produce drugs and medicines, there is a worry that these techniques are finding their way into the hands of criminals. A number of crops, illegally genetically modified to produce narcotics and unlicensed pharmaceuticals, have been discovered by police bees!
An innovative method of genetic surveillance has been implemented in some areas of London and Kent in the UK. Specialised police hives are set up in systematic locations, leaving the bees to roam a 3 mile radius collecting pollen as they go. Upon their return to the hive, pollen samples are obtained by means of a ‘pollen trap’ and bees proceed into the hive to inform the rest of their colony of the pollen source’s location. This information is communicated through a waggle dance, which scientists have studied to the extent that the information can be decoded for humans to read. An internal camera then records this behaviour within the hive. Pollen samples are collected monthly and sent to forensic laboratories for analysis. In the event that illegal cultivation of any kind is established, waggle dance recordings can be used to decode the signal and lead the police to the location of the crop.
So far, the method has led directly to the conviction of six amateurs who managed to cultivate cocaine from a plant, and a number of other convictions for unlicensed pharmaceutical cultivation have been made. There is also potential for the detection of the class B drug cannabis, although as yet this has not been done.
Mark Machan, Metropolitan Police bee keeper, points out that as bees can roam freely and bypass warrants stress is taken off of officers, allowing them to police the streets; all the more reason to act against the decline of the honey bee.
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