Think about the last time you were standing in security at an airport. You may have seen a TSA official or two walking around travelers and their luggage with their detection K9. For many years, detection (or “sniffer”) dogs were confined exclusively to police K9 units and cadaver dog handlers. These dogs were, and still are, trained to find drugs, bombs and dead people.
Approximately two-thirds of a dog’s brain is controlled by its olfactory system (a.k.a. its nose and sense of smell). While the average human has about five million olfactory (scent) receptors, the average dog has about 125 million – with the German Shepherd and some other breeds possessing over 225 million. Alongside their substantial collection of scent receptors, dogs also have a highly intricate and refined olfactory system which allows them to move each nostril individually, take in odors at different speeds and separate compound odors into individual components. This means that when a human smells a pot roast, a dog can smell each ingredient – beef, carrots, onions, flour, salt, etc. – separately.
The dog’s phenomenal olfactory system is what enables them to be so good at detection. It also enables search and rescue dogs to find people who have been trapped in the woods or under the snow for over 72 hours – following scent trails that are miles long.
Right now, you are probably thinking – ‘Great lecture on dog noses, but what does this have to do with saving the planet?’…
The threat of declining bee populations
We are aware of the increasing levels of destruction taking place in our forests; the pollution threatening our water sources; the harmful environmental impact of producing enough food to feed our ever-increasing population; and the detrimental effects of man-made climate change.
Alongside all of these factors, another terrifying matter is occurring. Animal and insect species – which are vital to the existence of mankind – are decreasing at an alarming rate. These species, especially our pollinators, are literally keeping the world alive. If there are not enough pollinators to keep the enormous amounts of vegetation required for life on earth alive, we (and every other animal species) will run out of oxygen and food.
Bees are one of the species most threatened by environmental changes and human destruction. Although many of us do not recognize it, many bee species are declining rapidly. This is a significant threat to our existence.
This may sound dire, but all is not lost! A new type of detection dog is emerging – the conservation detection dog. Instead of finding drugs or bombs, these dogs are able to help locate endangered animal species.
Last year, we undertook the challenging task of training a conservation detection dog to find Alpine Bumblebees for a conservation specialist dedicating her life to preserving this critical species. Her K9, Darwin, has finally completed his training, and we had the incredible opportunity to interview this specialist about conservation detection dogs, and how Darwin will be part of the solution to saving this species of bee.
Jacqueline Staab, a graduate student at Appalachian State University, is working with the university’s conservation department on a project she is leading to learn more about Alpine Bumblebees and repopulate their decreasing numbers. These bees are not easy to find, however, and their natural habitat is not easy for people to navigate (especially in large numbers). This is where Darwin comes in!
Tell us a little bit about yourself!
My name is Jacqueline Staab, I am 28 years old and am a graduate student at Appalachian State University. It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do – I wanted to farm, so I had a little farm for two years and that’s how I got into honey bees. With my bees, I knew that I wanted more land eventually so I decided to go back to school and study bees, basically. I got my Bachelor’s degree in ecology, evolutionary environmental biology, and then decided to go back for my grad!
So after farming, what inspired you to get into conservation?
Through farming, I fell in love with honey bees and bees in general. They are so interesting and there is so much cool stuff to learn about them. They are also really smart – like for instance, bees can count and learn behavior from one another. Most of our knowledge about bees is very recent, so it is really fascinating.
I also love people and we need food. Bees are a keystone species in a lot of environments – they are really important for everything, food and plants. Without them, a lot of environments would really decline.
What are your goals in conservation?
I want to go international and help the world with its pollination crisis. Due to anthropogenic climate change, the pollination population worldwide is doing really badly.
So this is where Darwin comes in. One of the reasons I got Darwin is because there are only three ways to really find bumblebee nests. You can walk around and look for them which takes forever; you can get volunteers to walk around and look for them; or you can use a conservation detection dog. They are working on radio tracking and stuff like that, but it isn’t really effective for finding nests because you have to run after the bees.
What is radio tracking?
Basically, they track movement by putting antennas on the bees, or they put a QR code on them and they will pass a camera so we can track their movement. This won’t allow you to find the nests, though. So the only way to establish the population size of bumblebees is to know how many nests there are. A lot of information we need, we haven’t been able to find because it has been hampered by our inability to find the nests.
So Darwin will enable us to find the nests and hopefully learn a lot of information about bumblebee nesting ecology, which not a lot is known about. Also, the complex relationships in nest webs, which is like a food web – the nest is the main resource. Alpine bumblebees nest in mammal burrows – they don’t make their own nests.
What inspired you to specialize in Alpine Bumblebees?
The alpine environment, along with the arctic, is known as kind of the “canary in the coalmine” for climate change. So a lot of change is going to happen there before we feel it in lower elevations – as well as at the poles and in the arctic. This is mainly why we are doing research out there for this reason.
What made you decide to have a dog trained to detect these bees?
I love dogs, first of all – and I did a lot of research on how to find bee nests. If you want to know how they’re doing, you need to know what their population is. The only way to establish their population size is to know how many nests there are because there is only one reproductive individual per nest – the Queen.
I read some papers, and the first dog who was trained to do this was located in Great Britain, and he was trained by their department of defense. They found that he was able to successfully find bee nests, and so I was like, “I am going to give this a try!”
So what I found when doing my initial research is that there aren’t a lot of places who train conservation detection dogs. There is a place in New Zealand, one in Hawaii and a few in the United States, but nothing along the east coast. I was really happy when I called here and you guys were willing to take on the challenge!
How did you learn that dogs could be trained to detect animals or insects?
There are only three other bumblebee detection dogs in the entire world. I was doing literature research to look up bumblebee nesting, and I was looking for ways to find the nests because not a lot is known about that. And by finding those nests, we’ll be able to know the range, the population, and help us predict future trajectories for these different species – which right now, we don’t know. All we know is that the population is in decline.
What sort of traits do you look for in a conservation detection dog?
Like any working dog – you need a lot of drive, a lot of focus, and you need them not to be scared. To pick Darwin out of his litter, I actually did the Volhard Puppy Aptitude Test, which is easily available online. I asked my vet about it and she said that it works, although it’s only an indication, it’s not fail-proof. But there are ten different tests – whether or not they’re submissive – for example, you open an umbrella in front of them and see if they attack it and how they respond to it…
How did Darwin respond to the umbrella?
He was startled a little bit, but then he started wagging his little tail and was interested and curious, and that’s what you want. It’s okay for them to be a little scared, but you don’t want them to cower in the corner. You want them to be interested but not aggressive. You don’t want him to be scared to go through bushes to find that bee nest – you want him to get out there and go.
Darwin is a German Shorthaired Pointer. What made you choose that breed?
I did a ton of research on dogs and conservation detection dogs, and what other people used for working dogs – things like that. I originally wanted to do a rescue, but I couldn’t find any with the temperament or traits I needed for the job. I looked at over 800 dogs. Due to time, I just decided to get a puppy from a breeder. I did a bunch of research and found Dot Simberlund out of Virginia. She’s got 50 plus years of experience with champion bloodlines and hunting dogs, and I contacted her. There was a litter – Darwin and his brother and sister, so I ended up getting Darwin with the Volhard Puppy Aptitude test.
I chose pointers because they trail on the ground, they smell on the ground and they don’t airscent – and also, I wanted a dog I could go to events with and would be calm. A Malinois would be way too much dog for this and I knew that. And honestly, I’ve always had a thing for pointers!
How old was Darwin when he started his training?
He was born in November and started in April, so he was about six months old.
What are your plans with Darwin for the future?
As soon as summer comes around, that’s when the Alpine bumblebee season starts. They emerge once all the snow packs have gone above them, so it’s usually a little later. As soon as the season starts, we’re going to Colorado and we’ve got three great sites set up in the central Rocky Mountains, about two hours south-west of Denver.
After I graduate, I’m going to continue studying bumblebee nesting and so Darwin’s just going to go with me on my PhD journey. And then hopefully, we’re going to go international and start saving bee populations worldwide, learning as much as we can so that we’re able to do what we can to mitigate the effects.
And any final thoughts you’d like to send out or inform the public about?
Okay, yes, there is one thing I would like to say!
Regarding bees…a lot of people have a really bad, like…”Oh my gosh, a bee – run!” – okay, bees are actually really cool. They’re really calm, and nice, and they’re only going to sting you if you threaten them. But there are a lot of insects that are bee mimics, that will sting you. They look like bees, but they’re not bees, such as yellowjackets. And people are like, “I just got stung by a bee six times!” – but bees are really cool and get a bad rep because people generalize and call a stinging insect a bee.
But just so you know, bees are really calm…you should get to know them and breathe a little! They’re like vegetarian wasps…they’re actually really cool.