Honey bees can be trained to detect cancer
"in ten minutes" says designer


Dutch Design Week 2013: Portuguese designer Susana Soares has developed a device for detecting cancer and other serious diseases using trained bees ( + slideshow).


The bees are placed in a glass chamber into which the patient exhales; the bees fly into a smaller secondary chamber if they detect cancer.

"Trained bees only rush into the smaller chamber if they can detect the odour on the patient's breath that they have been trained to target," explained Soares, who presented her Bee's project at Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven last month.


Scientists have found that honey bees - Apis mellifera - have an extraordinary sense of smell that is more acute than that of a sniffer dog and can detect airborne molecules in the parts-per-trillion range.

Bees can be trained to detect specific chemical odours, including the biomarkers associated with diseases such as tuberculosis, lung, skin and pancreatic cancer.

Bees have also been trained to detect explosives and a company called Insectinel is training "sniffer bees" to work in counter-terrorist operations.


"The bees can be trained within 10 minutes," explains Soares. "Training simply consists of exposing the bees to a specific odour and then feeding them with a solution of water and sugar, therefore they associate that odour with a food reward."

Once trained, the bees will remember the odour for their entire lives, provided they are always rewarded with sugar. Bees live for six weeks on average.

"There's plenty of interest in the project especially from charities and further applications as a cost effective early detection of illness, specifically in developing countries," Soares said.


Here is a project description by Susana Soares:

Bee's / Project

Bee's explores how we might co-habit with natural biological systems and use their potential to increase our perceptive abilities.

The objects facilitate bees' odour detection abilities in human breath. Bees can be trained within 10 minutes using Pavlov’s reflex to target a wide range of natural and man-made chemicals and odours, including the biomarkers associated with certain diseases.

The aim of the project is to develop upon current technological research by using design to translate the outcome into systems and objects that people can understand and use, engendering significant adjustments in their lives and mind set.

How it works

The glass objects have two enclosures: a smaller chamber that serves as the diagnosis space and a bigger chamber where previously trained bees are kept for the short period of time necessary for them to detect general health. People exhale into the smaller chamber and the bees rush into it if they detect on the breath the odour that they where trained to target.

What can bees detect?

Scientific research demonstrated that bees can diagnose accurately at an early stage a vast variety of diseases, such as: tuberculosis, lung and skin cancer, and diabetes.

Precise object

The outer curved tube helps bees avoid from flying accidentally into the interior diagnosis chamber, making for a more precise result. The tubes connected to the small chamber create condensation, so that exhalation is visible.

Detecting chemicals in the axilla

Apocrine glands are known to contain pheromones that retain information about a person's health that bees antennae can identify.

The bee clinic

These diagnostic tools would be part of system that uses bees as a biosensor.

The systems implies:
- A bee centre: a structure that facilitates the technologic potential of bees. Within the centre is a beefarm, a training centre, a research lab and a healthcae centre.

- Training centre: courses can be taken on beetraining where bees are collected and trained by beetrainers. These are specialists that learn beetraining techniques to be used in a large scope of applications, including diagnosing diseases.

- BEE clinic: bees are used at the clinic for screening tests. These insects are very accurate in early medical diagnosis through detection on a person's breath. Bees are a sustainable and valuable resource. After performing the diagnose in the clinic they are released, returning to their beehive.

Bee training

Bees can be easily trained using Pavlov’s reflex to target a wide range of natural and man-made chemicals odours including the biomarkers associated with certain diseases. The training consists in baffling the bees with a specific odour and feeding them with a solution of water and sugar, therefore they associate that odour with a food reward.

  • Unlike the “I wanna deliver a dolphin” project, THIS actually shows plenty of potential.

  • Theo

    Hang on, this is from back in 2007… This project was in the Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition at MOMA.

  • JayCee

    Designer crack pipes for the stars.

  • Gary Hunt

    We worked on a project a couple of years ago which trained bees to detect drugs. The bee hotel.


  • DanLeno

    Can human beings be trained not to hurt other species?

  • Derek

    Hurry up. Bees are going to become extinct soon. Can humans do anything right for once?

  • doodle

    Just remember to blow, not suck.

    • Carlo Aei

      Spit or swallow you mean.

  • Jimbo

    Interesting idea. I remember an RPI student showing me the same concept six or eight years ago. He applied it to a ventilated bed in one room with bees nesting in the next room. This is more compact, though his was more sustainable.

  • Jenni

    How long before someone turns this into a bong?

  • Andre Couto

    Now sell it to Merkel and company!

  • sjdehner

    Bees are absolutely amazing!

  • Pouya777

    Wow that’s amazing, how on earth do you train a bee?

  • Kim

    This is very interesting, but don’t you see that we are already destroying honey bees already? With the monocultures and chemicals used at them we are already causing colony collapse disorder. Now we want to use the bees to detect cancers that we are causing from crap we put on our food that also kills the honeybees? Maybe we need to work on our wild honeybee populations first instead of using the bees for our own services.