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ARLINGTON, Va. — Plan Bee to detect roadside bombs is a no-go.

The Defense Department has researched whether bees could detect explosives. The goal was to get the bees to react when they sensed vapors from substances such as dynamite and plastic explosives.

But the $2.4 million in research did not bear fruit, said Jan Walker, a spokeswoman for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

“The research demonstrated that bees can detect explosives under certain environmental conditions, but their explosive-detection capabilities have significant reliability issues,” Walker said Tuesday.

“Whatever you’re going to use to detect explosives, you have to know for sure; it has to be extremely reliable,” she said. “You don’t want to say it’s all clear and not have it all clear because that would put someone’s life at risk.”

The agency does not see a way to make the bees a reliable weapon in the fight against roadside bombs, she said.

“At this point, we do not plan any further investment,” Walker said.

But Tim Haarmann, a honey bee researcher at Los Alamos who worked on the project, said he still believes bees have the potential to be used in a role similar to that of bomb-sniffing dogs.

Haarmann said he cannot speak to what reliability issues DARPA faulted the bees over. he said that in tests at Los Alamos they did very well.

“There is no doubt in my mind that these bees do a very good job,” he said. “They can detect concentrations of high explosives in parts per trillion.”

While DARPA has decided not to fund the project further, it is not dead, Haarmann said.

Researchers are looking for new sources of funding and working with Homeland Security and Justice Department officials to see what roles the bees could play, he said.

Roadside bombs are the No. 1 killer of U.S. troops in Iraq.

Defeating improvised explosive devices is a top priority for the Defense Department, said Christine DeVries, a spokeswoman for the Joint IED Defeat Organization.

“While we have seen successes such as lowering the rate of casualties and finding and rendering safe a significant percentage of IEDs, much work remains to be done, and the Joint IED Defeat Organization will not stop until we have defeated the threat,” DeVries said Tuesday.


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