Bees Can Sniff Out Cancer

By Joelle Renstrom | Published

BeesMuch has been made of the troubling decline of bee populations. The problem is something called “colony collapse disorder,” which basically means that huge numbers of bee colonies are dying — at least 30% of hives on average over the past decade, and close to 40 or 50% in the past year or so. The other problem is that we’re not quite sure why this is happening — as in the case of the mysteriously dying starfish, the potential causes of colony collapse disorder could be environmental, and could include everything from climate change to pesticide use to other factors we haven’t identified yet. The European Commission has banned the use of a specific type of insecticide proven to be particularly harmful to honeybees, but it’s unclear how much that will help. While it might seem that bees are painful nuisances, they’re crucial to our global agriculture. According to an article in Yale University’s Environment 360 publication, “One of every three bites of food eaten worldwide depends on pollinators, especially bees, for a successful harvest.” And, just in case you haven’t been convinced of the importance of bees, there’s now another reason we want to keep them around: they can detect cancer.


Portuguese designer Susana Soares, whose design work focuses on how technology can complement natural living systems, has come up with a quick and easy way to demonstrate bees’ ability to detect cancer. For her bee project, she wanted to explore “how we might co-habit with natural biological systems and use their potential to increase our perceptive abilities.” In other words, she’s looking at how we can use nature to enhance our understanding of the world and ourselves. Bees are a perfect example, as they’re easy to train. Soares says that using the traditional Pavlovian technique it only took her 10 minutes to get them to do what she needed them to do — identify cancer by detecting a certain odor in someone’s breath.


Cancer, like all diseases, has certain biomarkers, and it turns out that a potent sniffer can suss out certain health-related pheromones in seconds. Scientific studies have shown that bees can successfully diagnose a bunch of diseases, including cancer, diabetes, and tuberculosis. Soares designed a bowl-shaped glass object that contains a small chamber inside its main space. The trained bees hang out in the main space until someone exhales into the small chamber. If the bees detect the odor they were trained to identify, then they fly into that small chamber. If the breath doesn’t contain cancer or other disease biomarkers, then the bees continue chillaxing in the bigger chamber.

The design of the glass object decreases the potential for false positives by being curved in a way that would prevent bees from accidentally flying into the smaller chamber — they have to specifically want to fly in there. The tubes that connect the chamber also show condensation so it’s clear when someone has blown into the glass.

Soares debuted her system at Dutch Design Week to great fanfare. There seems to be no reason for the medical industry shouldn’t embrace this idea — except, of course, that it’s less expensive than traditional tests. Still, I’d vote for bees over leaches in my medical regimen any day.