Wasps – sniffer dogs with wings?
By Stephanie Pain HALF a minute is all it takes. After three 10-second training sessions, Glen Rains’s crack team of sniffers is ready for anything. They could be co-opted into the hunt for a corpse. They might join the search for a stash of Semtex or a consignment of drugs. Or they could have the more tedious job of checking luggage at the airport. Whatever the assignment, their role is the same: to pick up a scent no human nose can detect and pinpoint its source. These new recruits to the fight against crime are smaller, cheaper and more versatile than a sniffer dog, and more sensitive than an electronic “nose”. They are wasps. Insects have exquisitely sensitive olfactory systems. Their antennae are covered with microscopic sensors that can detect the faintest odour. Some are also remarkably quick learners. So it is hardly surprising they have aroused the interest of the military and security services, police and customs, all badly in need of ultra-sensitive, flexible and portable odour detectors. Insects obviously have the right stuff, but can they use it to sniff out smells they would never encounter in nature – a hint of explosives, say, or a whiff of cocaine? And if so, is it possible to make a practical device that harnesses their skills? Enter Wasp Hound, a hand-held odour detector with a team of little black wasps as its sensor. Developed by Rains, a biological engineer at the University of Georgia, his colleague Sam Utley and Joe Lewis, an entomologist at the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Tifton, Georgia,