In Future Surveillance States, Will Honeybees Narc on Pot Growers?

By Patrick Morgan | February 16, 2011 12:07 pm

If one London art gallery is correct in predicting the future of police surveillance, we may have to redefine the meaning of ‘sting’ operation: one artist’s mock-interview with a (fake) beekeeping police officer describes how bees can be used to track down growers of illegal plants–and the scary thing is that this art video is only a hop and a skip from reality.

An exhibition called “High Society: Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture” at London’s Wellcome Collection features a short film by artist Thomas Thwaites, entitled “Policing Genes,” in which a mock police officer explains the latest in surveillance trickery. Essentially, the police officers tend bee hives, and when the bees return from their daily pollen-hunt, the officers not only check the bees for pollen from such plants as marijuana, but can also use software to decode the dance of the honeybee. And since pollen-laden bees dance to tell the other bees where they found the pollen, decoding the dance would tell the police the exact location of the illegal plants.

As the officer says in the video, using bees allows the police to bypass those pesky little things called warrants–since a bee, after all, doesn’t need one to enter your property. “We use bees because they’re a natural resource,” says the video’s so-called Metropolitan Police Bee Keeper. “Bees can go anywhere they want. They run about, so they can go through windows, into gardens quite freely.”

We already live in a world that uses mice to sniff out bombs, and that can engineer plants to detect TNT, so it’s not such a stretch to envision bees that reveal the locations of illegal plants. And it turns out that Thomas Thwaites’ video was inspired from a meeting with James French, a student of pollen forensics at the University College London’s Centre For Security and Crime Science. As Thwaites told “we make money not art” blogger Regine Debatty:

At the moment, by examining a sample of pollen from somebody’s clothes, you could be confident of whether or not, for example, ‘they’ve been in the same woods where the body was found’. This obviously is quite useful if your suspect claims he’s been at home in London answering his emails, but the pollen on his clothes isn’t from London gardens, but from a oak woodland. Equally, a lack of pollen can rule people out of the investigation.

Maybe we’ll see a future in which people are convicted and sent to prison because “the bees told us so.”

Related Content:
Discoblog: The Next Tool for the CIA: Helicopters That Fit in Your Palm
Discoblog: Go to Jail–You Smell Like Drugs
80beats: Uh Oh: Pollen Can Spread Viruses From Domesticated Bees to Wild Ones
80beats: Honeybees Get High on Cocaine and Dance, Dance, Dance

Image: flickr / .Larry Page

  • Kea

    That’s not a honeybee you have pictured – looks like a bumble bee (unless bees look different in the UK)

    • Patrick Morgan

      Hi Kea,

      Thanks for pointing that out! As you can see, we’ve updated the picture to better reflect the article’s content.


  • Brian Too

    Oh no dude! The little bee dudes have been taken over by the Man!

    I guess my, uh, friend’s, grow op is still safe huh?



  • Chris Watkins

    That software to decode the bee’s dance is a way off yet! Some scientists don’t even believe that the dance contains enough information to locate a source, but think it’s mainly to share odor and recruit other bees.

  • http://youtube? jake

    I have been stung I saw this up in london about a year ago and I thought it was real realy. I saw it outside a hospital it must of been next to the hospital as I thought it must be in conection with the goverment and must be real oh no what a palaver!


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