nsects offer key advantages over mammals and electronics, however, because of their antennae. For example, electronic nose devices have trouble detecting an odor amid more complicated conditions, like when there’s a greater mixture of gases, as is found in human breath. And studies have revealed that sniffer dogs identify odors correctly only about 71 percent of the time, while also requiring at least three months’ training. Bees, in contrast, have achieved an accuracy rate of 98 percent and can be trained in about 10 minutes.
In developing “Bee’s,” the Portuguese native needed something that enabled the user to easily transport bees into the instrument and safely suck them back out using a vacuum. The source material also had to be malleable enough to shape into a system with well-defined pathways that don’t impede their movement. She eventually settled on glass as the material because of its flexibility and transparency. “To know the results of a breath test, you’d have to see the behavior of the insects,” she says. “Everything is about their behavior.”
Prototypes have undergone field testing, and although it didn’t find any instances of cancer, it did turn up a case of diabetes that was later confirmed. It’s unlikely, though, that the concept will amount to anything beyond being an exhibition curiosity. While there was a brief period in which she felt ambitious enough to reach out to potential collaborators, the process proved so time consuming and unfruitful that she ultimately gave up. The only organizations that seemed even remotely interested in her idea were a handful of charities. So for now, “Bee’s” exists as one of those purely academic exercises to show, as she puts it, the “symbiotic relationship” humans have with nature and how “technology and science can better foster these relationships.”
“I think there’s only four labs in the world doing research into insects for disease screening, which shows you that this approach doesn’t go over well in the western world,” says Soares. “Medical and health technologies are a big business, and the bottom line is they just don’t see how something like this can be profitable.”
Glen C. Rains, an agricultural professor at the University of Georgia, largely concurs, though he adds that there are more complex issues besides economics. The entomologist, as well as licensed beekeeper, has dealt with numerous challenges while developing a similar device called the Wasp Hound, which uses a batch of five wasps to detect the presence of bedbugs. Rains’ system is a bit more elaborate in that it uses a camera to record the wasps’ behavior. The data is then fed into software that analyzes these movements to determine if the bugs actually did indeed detect these unwanted guests. After over a decade of development, Rains has forged a partnership with Bennett Aerospace, an engineering firm, to refine the technology for large-scale real applications.