Why is that fruit in the grocery store looks wonderful buttastes so dull and flavorless? Are you tired of buying amelon, waiting until it seems ripe, then cutting it openonly to find it’s tasteless? It’s hard to select good fruit,since we can’t tell whether or not it’s any good until weeat it. British scientists think we should leave it up to bees.
In a program backed by Sainsbury’s Grocery Stores, “sniffer”honey bees are being used to judge the ripeness and flavorof fruit before it arrives at the store. Bees have theability to detect airborne molecules in concentrations ofless than one part per billion. An earlier study using fruitflies proved that insects can tell if a single cherry tomatoin a large shipment is spoiled.
The researchers think bees will be even more effective.”Honey bees are amazingly sensitive,” says Paul Davis of thebiotech company Insense. “They can detect molecules atconcentrations that are equivalent to detecting a grain ofsalt in a bathful of sand.”
Bees can also be trained easily. “It’s just like Pavlov’sdogs,” Davis says. “You expose them to the chemical you areinterested in detecting and reward them with glucose if theyrespond correctly. It takes just a few minutes.”
To start off, 6 bees will be trained to test the ripenessand flavor of strawberries. Each bee will be exposed to asample of air that has been blown over the fruit and thebee?s reaction will be monitored on video. If it detectsmolecules indicating the strawberries are flavorful, thetrained bee will signal by sticking out its tongue-likeproboscis.
Videos of the bees? reactions will be passed to a computer,which will alert human inspectors if any batches of berriesfail to pass the bee test. Each bee will work for only a fewdays before being sent back to its hive, then a new bee teamwill be brought in. “It’s important to look after them,?says Davis, ?as they work only if they’re totally happy andcomfortable.”
“This is an even bigger issue now that seasonal produce ison sale all year round,” says Peter Morrison of Sainsbury?s,which is the largest grocery store chain in the U.K. “Withsomething as variable as farm produce, sampling doesn’t worktoo well. We would like to get to the stage where we canguarantee the quality of everything going down the line atthe packing-houses, which is impossible at the moment.”
The next step will be to use bees to judge the ripeness ofcrops while they?re still in the field, so they won?t bepicked and shipped too soon. “We see enormous potential forthis system,” says Morrison.
Davis says, “The U.S. military is already developing the useof parasitic wasps and bees in explosives detection. Insectsare much better than sniffer dogs because they give clearresponses that computers can analyze.”
It may taste good, but is it safe to eat? Find out what?sreally on our grocery store shelves from ?Eating in theDark? by Kathleen Hart,click here.
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