JAN 24, 2022 9:36 PM PST

Honey Bees Could Make Forensic Science More Reliable

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

Most methods used in forensic science have not been independently validated or verified by scientists, and the field is mired in politics. Researchers have expressed concern about this issue. In 2018, scientists who had served on the National Commission for Forensic Science (NCFS) prior to the termination of its charter by the Department of Justice warned in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that forensic science was "in dire need of deep and meaningful attention from the broader scientific community."

Image credit: waiguobox/Pixabay

But, a few scientists have been making a bit of progress in the field. DNA analysis is the best example of a truly scientific forensic method, the PNAS editorial noted. Dr. William M. Bass also created the Forensic Anthropology Center in 1987, which is popularly known as the Body Farm (no tours are given). There, human bodies that have been donated post-mortem are left to decompose, and are analyzed later so scientists can study the process in a controlled way. There are now eight such sites around the world.

George Mason University is one of those sites. They have also now partnered with FARO Technologies, Inc. to establish a new forensic lab.

A new initiative by the research group is aiming to study how proteins in honey could tell us more about missing people. The honey proteins are known to carry biochemical information about the bees' diets. For example, the chemicals in pesticides can be detected in honey, which can reveal the types of pesticides that are used within a five mile radius of a bees' hive.

When humans decompose, the process produces volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which might also be found in honey. If there are flowers growing near human remains, those VOCs might be absorbed by the plants. Bees feeding on those plants could take up the VOCs and release them in the honey, which can be harvested from various hives and then analyzed. Thus, the general location of human remains might be revealed.

"If we can determine what the VOCs are for humans and differentiate that from other animals, we could then use the bees and their honey as sentinels, and, hopefully, find missing persons and solve cases," explained Anthony Falsetti, an associate professor of forensic science.

Honey bees are attracted to specific types of flowers, which will be planted at the Forensic Science Research and Training Laboratory at Mason, where human remains will be decomposing naturally. A hive is located nearby, and a method has been developed to extract the VOCs from the honey so this theory can be tested.

If you would like to learn about how to donate your body to science to help this effort through the Virginia State Anatomical Program (VSAP), go to this website or the Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee Knoxville.

Sources: FBI, George Mason University

About the Author
Bachelor's (BA/BS/Other)
Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on over 30 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 70 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
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