Just imagine. De-mining teams, with bee protection nets on their heads, carefully moving through suspected minefields. Slowly, step by step, they approach an area where honeybees have settled -- a sure sign that a mine is lurking below the surface.
Science fiction? Well, not according to Professor Nikola Kezic of Zagreb University in Croatia, who believes that he will soon be able to recruit Mother Nature's little workers in the fight to save lives and limbs.
"Croatia needs any help it can get with de-mining, so I came up with this unusual idea -- from some unusual helpers -- honeybees," Kezic told ABC News.
The Balkans have a huge land mines problem, due to the devastating wars in the 1990s. There are an estimated 700,000 land mines. In many cases, there are no maps showing where they are buried, and many acres of fertile land remain uncultivated because farmers are too afraid to step into their fields. Croatia is no exception in the former Yugoslavia.
"The idea was born in 2002. Professor Kezic knows everything about bees and we know the mine problem, so we started cooperating on the project," said Nikola Pavkovic of Croatian Mine Action Center.
He is also stressing that the project is in the early stage now, and that the bees are not going to replace conventional de-mining techniques, but will locate mines that maybe were missed in mine sweeps.
Kezic is confident bees can be trained to find land mines. He says that tests have shown that it is easier to teach a bee to detect TNT than to teach a dog.
"The bee has an orientation through shape and smell. We try to develop Pavlov's reflex in bees: Into one pot we put a mixture of soil and TNT, and in the second one we put their food, so the bee flies over TNT searching for food but gets used to the smell of TNT."
Mother Nature's Other Weapons?
Currently, there is no effective way to screen a large area for land mines. But the mines leave chemical marks. They leak explosives into the soil, which are dissolved by water and consumed by plants.
A number of botanists elsewhere in the world are developing a fast-growing, self-limiting plant that can detect explosives leaking from mines. The plants are sown in suspect areas. They then change color when there are mines present.
Kezic hopes that if everything goes well, bees would be used to carry out surveys to test if there is a minefield in a particular area. This would help pinpoint the location of individual mines.
"But by covering vast areas of land, bees could soon make the work of humans easier and life of our children safer," concluded Kezic.
In the sad story of death and mutilation, the legacy of land mines, the humble bee could offer a welcome sting in the tale.