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Wasps: Man's New Best Friend?

ATHENS, Ga. (Ivanhoe Broadcast News) -- Wasps are not man's best friend -- probably their worst. But when it comes to sniffing out trouble, scientists believe they may be better than dogs.

They ward off intruders, track down criminals, find bombs and detect toxic chemicals, but dogs could soon be replaced by wasps. They have the same sensitive odor detection as dogs and are now being trained to sniff out trouble.

"The advantages of a wasp over a dog is you can produce them by the thousands. They are real inexpensive, and you can train them in a matter of minutes," Joe Lewis, Ph.D., a research entomologist at University of Georgia in Athens, tells Ivanhoe.

He and Biological and agricultural engineer Glen Rains, Ph.D., are doing just that. Olfactory sensors on the wasps' antennae can smell chemicals in concentrations as tiny as a few parts per billion in the air.

"So far, they've been able to detect, to some level, any chemical that we've trained them to," Rains tells Ivanhoe.

Training is simple and quick. The wasps are fed sugar water. At the same time they're introduced to a smell for 10 seconds. The process is repeated two more times.

Lewis says, "We can train a wasp within a matter of 10 to 15 minutes."

For example, a set of wasps is trained to detect the smell of coffee. When they are put into a simple container, a tiny web camera watches their actions. When the smell of orange is pumped into the pipe, nothing. But when it's coffee, the wasps crowd around the smell.

So far, Rains and Lewis have not found anything the wasps cannot be trained to detect. They can be trained to detect everything from drugs to human remains to fungi on crops. They could one day even be able to detect deadly diseases like cancer.

The trained wasps could be used in the public within the next five years.

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A joint production of Ivanhoe Broadcast News and the American Institute of Physics. Partially funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
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