Mirjana Filipovic is still haunted by the land mine blast that killed her boyfriend and blew off her left leg while on fishing trip nearly a decade ago. It happened in a field that was supposedly de-mined.
Now, unlikely heroes may be coming to the rescue to prevent similar tragedies: sugar-craving honeybees. Croatian researchers are training them to find unexploded mines littering their country and the rest of the Balkans.
When Croatia joins the EU on July 1, in addition to the beauty of its aquamarine Adriatic sea, deep blue mountain lakes and lush green forests, it will also bring numerous un-cleared minefields to the bloc’s territory. About 750km2 are still suspected to be filled with mines from the Balkan wars in the 1990s.
Nikola Kezic, an expert on the behavior of honeybees, sat with a group of researchers on a recent day in a large net tent filled with bees. The professor at Zagreb University outlined the idea for the experiment: Bees have a perfect sense of smell that can quickly detect the scent of the explosives. They are being trained to identify their food with the scent of TNT.
“Our basic conclusion is that the bees can clearly detect this target, and we are very satisfied,” said Kezic, who leads a part of a larger multimillion-euro program, called “Tiramisu,” sponsored by the EU to detect land mines.
Several feeding points were set up on the ground around the tent, but only a few have TNT particles in them. The method of training the bees by authenticating the scent of explosives with the food they eat appears to work: bees gather mainly at the pots containing a sugar solution mixed with TNT.
Kezic said the feeding points containing the TNT traces offer “a sugar solution as a reward, so they can find the food in the middle.”
Croatian officials estimate that since the beginning of the Balkan wars in 1991, about 2,500 people have died from land mine explosions. During the four-year war, about 90,000 land mines were placed across the entire country, mostly at random.
Dijana Plestina, the head of the Croatian government’s de-mining bureau, said the devices represent a large obstacle for the country’s population and industry. In the nearly two decades since the end of the war, land mines have taken the lives of 316 people, she said.
In 2004, Filipovic and her boyfriend were on a fishing trip that took them to a river between Croatia and Bosnia.
“As we were returning hand-in-hand, my boyfriend stepped on a mine,” the 41-year-old Filipovic said. “It was an awful, deafening explosion ... thousands of shrapnel parts went flying, hundreds ending up in my body. He was found dead several meters away, while I remained in a pool of blood sitting on the ground.”
She sued the Croatian government, saying the area wasn’t clearly marked as a former minefield. The government admitted guilt in the case for failing to keep the minefield sign, but the court has yet to determine financial compensation.
It may be a while before the honeybees hit real minefields, Kezic said. First, they will conduct controlled tests, with real mines, but which are marked.
Kezic said US researchers have experimented with mine-searching bees, but TNT — the most common explosive used in the Balkan wars — wasn’t part of their experiment because its smell evaporates quickly, and only small traces remain after time.
Rats and dogs are also used to detect explosives worldwide, but unlike bees, they could set off blasts on the minefields because of their weight.