Police bees for surveillance, tracking and buzzzsting biohackers?

Other than a few obvious illegal narcotic plants, it hadn't occurred to me that the genetics of what is growing in a person's garden could become a police matter. Even more intriguing/trippy was the possibility of the police using bees for surveillance and for forensically identifying the pollen that the bees came back with. If that pollen is genetically outside of the law, the police could use the bees to track a person right to the house he or she lives in.


Crimes and Clues conducted a survey of U.S. police departments and forensics labs, the FBI, and U.S. Customs which revealed only 6% even knew that pollen can be used as a forensic tool. Apparently, I'm not the only one who is unfamiliar with forensic palynology (pollen forensics).

Thomas Thwaites, however, has put a great deal of thought into genetic engineering and the policing of those genes. Thwaites pointed out that the ability to insert genes into plants is now DIY technology available to both the amateur and the criminal. "Policing Genes speculates that, like other technologies, genetic engineering will also find a use outside the law, with innocent-looking garden plants being modified to produce narcotics and unlicensed pharmaceuticals."

Can you imagine a future where London police bees conduct genetic surveillance, officers conduct pollen forensics and their buzzing little police bees help them track offenders back to the place of crime? Buzzzzsted. Pharming, surveillance, sampling, analysis and prosecution . . . You may need to see this to believe it:

Thwaites' project was commissioned by the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council as part of the IMPACT Project, with the Department of Security and Crime Sciences (DSCS) in London. DSCS is the "first university department in the world devoted specifically to reducing crime and other risks to personal and national security. It does this through teaching, research, public policy analysis and by the dissemination of evidence-based information on crime reduction and security enhancement."

Thwaites has an impressive diagram, explaining how police bees and policing genes are proposed to work. It's laid out like this:

Pharming: Big pharmaceutical companies have plant-made-pharmaceuticals. Although they want to protect their intellectual property and genetic modification investments from unlicensed cultivation, their seeds, cuttings and genes can be found on the black market. As more amateurs get into it, the genetically modified plants "can produce unintended effects, or can be made with malicious intent. Such problems are compounded by the accidental cross-pollination of genetically modified plants with those grown in neighboring gardens or farm crops."

Surveillance: The police response is to co-opt the natural behaviors of bees to monitor the genetic make-up of pollen in the area. They set up Genetic Surveillance Hives. Bees will forage up to three miles from their hives, bringing back samples of pollen from private gardens and farms.

Sampling is conducted via a "pollen trap at the entrance to the surveillance hive." An internal camera in the surveillance hive records the bees doing a "waggle dance," describing to their hive mates where they collected the pollen.

Analysis: The collected pollen is analyzed at the pollen forensic lab. "If pollen is found to contain illegal genes, or unlicensed use of intellectual property, then the video of the waggle dance linked to the sample is retrieved and decoded."

Prosecution: The waggle dance reveals the distance and direction from the hive to the source of the genetically engineered pollen. Further observation is undertaken and warrants to search the property are obtained. 

Although police in the UK are using pollen forensics, Thwaites' police bees are currently an art project that seems almost believable. In the near future, it may be a reality. When We Make Money Not Art interviewed Thwaites, they learned that pollen can determine if a person was in the woods where a corpse was found; the lack of pollen can even prove/disprove an alibi. Pollen can get on clothes, furniture, cars - the amount of pollen can be forensically applied to determine how many days ago a body was moved.

I asked Thomas Thwaites: How do you feel about using bees for surveillance and tracking down biohackers?

Thwaites answered, "I like the mixture of old and new about it, a mixing up of traditional and futuristic views of nature...Bees and bee keeping, with their traditional associations being used in this very high-technology way." 

Do you think the police such as the Department of Security and Crime Science will use your project as an incentive to develop such a project?

Thwaites replied, "I don't think The Department of Crime and Security science would use the project as the basis for a real world system - biotechnology isn't quite so widespread as to require genetic policing as yet, it is a futures project after all. However, there are a growing number of police forces using animals/insects for many (some quite strange!) types of surveillance."

"This work is currently not the focus of a research project in our department, " confirmed the Department of Security and Crime Science in an email.

The concept of using bees as tiny flying police is pretty trippy, but who knows? The day may come when pollen forensics and policing genes are more common. Do you foresee law enforcement using police bees for surveillance and to track down pirated clone plants from big pharmaceutical companies?

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