UNESCO Hosts Dutch Scientists for COVID detection using Honey Bees

A visit at ICIPE in Nairobi, Kenya ©ICIPE

Do you know bees can be used in the fields of disease diagnostics, environmental detection, food and security systems, and Research & Development? Bees can be trained to learn and differentiate between volatiles within few minutes, while the detection can be done within few seconds. During the COVID pandemic, Dutch researchers from InsectSense Ltd and Wageningen University & Research explored and applied insect-behaviour to provide a rapid but accurate solution in solving the global challenges posed by the pandemic. In their research, honeybees are trained to detect COVID-19 infections in samples, where the waiting time for test results could be cut from hours or days down to just seconds. Bees have an unusual sense of smell, and they indicate a positive test result by extending their tongues to get a reward in the form of sugar water. Taking about a month to train the bees, researchers say that it could be used in parts of the world where there is currently no COVID testing available.


According to the Dutch researchers, other areas to apply this insect technology include human, animal, plant disease diagnosis; food and feed industries; drug and vaccine development; and emission monitoring. This technology can merge with artificial intelligence that enables data to be accessible on computers or smartphones. While equipment is washable, bees are re-usable thus, making the technology scalable, cost-efficient and sustainable, especially good for some of the places with limited resources in Africa. Free of harsh winters and rich in species, many African regions have excellent conditions for bee keeping. Research shows that approximately one-third of all food produced in Africa is the result of commercial honeybee pollination, which highlights the untapped potential of Africa’s honeybees.


The Bee keeping sector has not been fully harnessed in Kenya despite its ecosystem importance to humans and environment. To realize the potential, the UNESCO Regional Office for Eastern Africa in Nairobi hosted Dutch researchers from InsectSense Ltd and Wageningen University & Research for joint collaboration on their project: “Development of fast and reliable testing methods for novel, zoonotic and viral diseases in both humans and animals”. The visit in Kenya from 2 to 5 November 2021 was to establish strategic partnership with research, academic, business and UN organizations for the aforementioned project. Some of the organizations visited include, the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), the University of Nairobi, Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), WHO etc.