Sandy’s Garden ... A New Interpretation of ‘Drone’

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I was recently casting my mind way back to the days of yore, when I was still in short trousers and attending primary school.

My Primary 7 teacher in Perth … Lachlan Buchanan, since you ask … always had a nature study period on a Friday afternoon. Not that we left our classroom to venture into the great outdoors, of course; no, this was very much a desk-bound experience, when ‘Buckie’ … and hasn’t that word acquired a very different connotation since then? … wrote copious notes on the blackboard for us to copy into our nature study notebooks.

I still remember writing, “A drone is a male honeybee,” into that exercise book, although I can remember nothing more of the entry. I guessed, even at the time, that the word ‘drone’ was an example of onomatopoeia, a linguistic representation of the sound made by the insect in flight. Much more recently I learned that the onomatopoeic word comes from the Old English ‘dran or dræn’ meaning ‘male honeybee’, and that it acquired the meaning ‘idler’ during the Middle Ages, for the drones make no honey and do precious little work around the hive, their sole purpose being to mate with the queen.

In more recent times, the word ‘drone’ has been applied to the remotely-controlled pilotless aircraft which are used, particularly by the armed forces of the United States, to conduct aerial operations against insurgents in the Middle East, their great advantages being their relatively small size, their ability to remain in the air for many hours and, of course, the fact that no aircrew lives are endangered.

However, in a fascinating development, worker honeybees … those that actually collect the nectar from plants and bring it to the hive … are being experimentally assessed for their suitability to act as drones in areas of former military conflict, for the US Department of Defense is funding a $3 million programme … ‘program’ if you insist … to determine whether honeybees, equipped with tiny radio frequency tags, can help detect land mines – and no, I am not making this up. Alan Rudolph is program manager in the Defense Sciences Office of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), who describes the project on an American Forces Press Service website. He writes about how scientists and engineers at various research and development centres across the United States have been working with honeybees to develop technologies which will turn the insects into information collectors wearing tracking devices that may help pinpoint mines within a designated area.

Radio tags, no larger than half a grain of rice, are attached to the backs of the bees, allowing researchers to track the bees’ flight paths and record every landing place. After a bee returns to its hive, special hi-tech sensors scan for chemicals brought back on the bees’ bodies. Scientists believe the tracking information, combined with the chemical analysis, will help pinpoint the locations of mines in former war zones without any risk to human or insect life.

Closer to home, a similar programme is being trialled in Croatia, again using honey bees, insects which can be trained to recognise the smell of TNT by adding traces of the land-mine ingredient to sugar-soaked sponges. Initially, the bees locate the sugar: but they soon learn to associate the smell of TNT with food; and, by gradually reducing the amount of sugar and increasing the TNT scent, the bees learn to recognise and home in on the smell of TNT, an odour which emanates from plants growing beside buried land mines, for traces of the chemical leak into the soil and are ingested by the plants. When the sensors in the hive detect TNT on a bee, the records of its journey reveal the land mine’s location. Simple, yes?

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society