TIFTON, Ga. — Trained wasps could someday replace dogs for sniffing out drugs, bombs and bodies.
Scientists say a species of nonstinging wasps can be trained in only five minutes and are just as sensitive to odors as man’s best friend, which can require up to six months of training at a cost of about $15,000 per dog.
With the use of a hand-held device that contains the wasps but allows them to do their work, researchers have been able to use the insects to detect target odors such as a toxin that grows on corn and peanuts, and a chemical used in certain explosives.
“There’s a tremendous need for a very flexible and mobile chemical detector,” said U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) entomologist Joe Lewis, who has been studying wasps since the 1960s. “Our best devices that we have currently are very cumbersome, expensive and highly fragile.”
The “Wasp Hound” research by Mr. Lewis and University of Georgia agricultural engineer Glen Rains is part of a larger government project to determine whether insects and even reptiles or crustaceans could be recruited for defense work. That project has resulted in scientists’ refining the use of bees as land-mine detectors.
Mr. Lewis and a USDA colleague, J.H. Tumlinson, discovered that a wasp known as Microplitis croceipes relies on odors to locate nectar for food and hosts for its eggs.
“They have to be good detectors because their whole survival depends on it,” Mr. Lewis said.
Mr. Rains said the wasps can be trained to detect a specific odor very quickly. The Wasp Hound is a 10-inch-long plastic cylinder made of PVC pipe with a hole in one end and a small fan on the other. Inside is a tiny digital camera that connects to a laptop computer for monitoring the behavior of five wasps housed in a transparent, ventilated capsule.
When the wasps detect a target odor, they converge around the vent, creating a mass of dark pixels on the computer screen. Otherwise, they just hang out inside the capsule.
The method could be used to search for explosives at airports or to locate bodies, Mr. Lewis said.