The highly honed sense of smell that honeybees possess could one day help detect early stage cancer. That's according to new research from Portuguese scientist Susana Soares. Her project, BEE's, New Organs of Perception, explores how bees use their sensitive olfactory systems to detect illness in humans.

How Do Honeybees Smell Cancer?

While the bees don't have noses per se, they have plenty of olfactory sensory neurons in their feet, tongues, and antennae. And when honeybees are repeatedly exposed to odor molecules that an individual gives off when he or she has cancer, and then offered some sugar as a "reward," they start linking that smell with the sugar. Once conditioned, Soares says the bees do a "waggle dance" when they link the food source with the particular smell.

Wondering how a bee get close enough to an individual to "smell" an impending malignancy? The beauty of Soares' research is a two-chambered glass dome used to introduce the honeybees to a human's breath.

The dome has two enclosures: "A smaller chamber that serves as the diagnostic space and a bigger chamber where previously trained bees are kept for the short period of time necessary for them to detect general health," Soares explains on her website. "People exhale into the smaller chamber, and the bees rush into it if they detect on the breath the odor that they were trained to target."

Soares claims that she can train a honeybee in just 10 minutes to identify the presence not just of very early-stage cancer but other illnesses such as diabetes and tuberculosis.

What the Experts Say About Bees Being Used to Detect Illness

If it sounds far-fetched, some experts say not to completely discount it yet. This isn't the first time animals have been used to help diagnose illness. Already, specially trained dogs are able to recognize when an individual with diabetes is about to have an episode of hypoglycemia, and to alert the individual or get help from someone nearby. Dogs have also been trained to recognize when someone is about to have a seizure. In both scenarios, the dogs' keen sense of smell helps them to pick up on the scent that signals an individual is about to have a medical emergency.

"It's not that unfeasible," adds Stephanie Bernik, MD, chief of surgical oncology at the North Shore-LIJ Cancer Institute at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "It needs a lot of work and it seems really extreme, but it may be worth looking at."

If a person were diagnosed with cancer at a very early stage, treatment could be started much sooner. "We are always looking to catch things at the earliest possible stage," Bernik says. Other experts are a bit skeptical. Honeybees do have phenomenal odor detection and cognitive abilities, explains Christina Grozinger, PhD, professor in the Department of Entomology at the Center for Pollinator Research at Pennsylvania State University. And, she adds, they can easily be trained to associate different odors with food rewards, and to have the appropriate behavioral responses.

"But it seems unlikely that there are common odor cues associated with the presence of cancer in different patients which the bees could be reliably trained to pick up," Grozinger says. "And if there were common cues to detect cancer, it would be significantly easier to use an analytical chemistry method to detect them."

Christina Grozinger, PhD, reviewed this article.


Susana Soares. Bees/Project.

Neporent, Liz. "Honeybees Trained to Sniff Out Cancer." 25 November 2013. ABC News.