Sniffer Bees and TNT


Chemistry is everywhere and the clever Chemists can take two seemingly random items and link them together. TNT is an explosive composed of an Arene and a Bee is a Bee. I would like you to look at the structure of TNT and compare it to the structure of some of the Arenes you have made in the lab. How close are the structures? Any ideas for the conversion of these to TNT? Why is TNT explosive?

What is the link with ‘sniffer’ Bees? Do some research and comment on the link between the two and the feasibility of the studies / reports you find. What is it about TNT and Bees that makes them suitable for this application?


3 thoughts on “Sniffer Bees and TNT

  1. Sniffer Bees and TNT Will Addison

    Trinitrotoluene (TNT) consists of benzene, a methyl group and 3 nitro groups. TNT is very dangerous because when it explodes it produces: N2, CO, H2O and C which contain very strong bonds which release a lot of energy when made by breaking the bonds in TNT. TNT is also dangerous because the 3 nitro groups are closely packed, experiencing a lot of strain on their bonds, not taking a lot of energy to break these bonds, causing the molecule to fly apart at extreme velocities to create a gas 1000 times the volume of the original solid. Typically, 1 gram of TNT solid produces 1 litre of gas.

    2C7H5N3O6 -> 3N2 + 7CO + 5H2O + 7C

    Another arene we have looked at includes 2-hydroxy benzoic acid (salicylic acid) which has an aromatic group attached but doesn’t have the 3 nitro groups or a methyl group like TNT does. To convert it to TNT, simply remove the carboxylic acid group then nitrate phenol to add the 3 nitro groups. Then substitute the –OH group for a –CH3 group.

    During the Bosnian war of 1992-95, many landmines were placed and there are about 120,000 unexploded devices still in the region. Now, there have been floods in the Balkans, causing the dislodging of the land mines, triggering them off. Thankfully, Croatian and French scientists have trained ‘sniffer bees’ to detect the scent of TNT by sugar-coating it so they land on it, so they can detect where the explosive is. Mr Nikola Kesic, the scientist in charge, hopes to conduct experiments with 30,000 bees with European funding to help with bomb disposal in the area. Since TNT is aromatic, it has a distinct aroma of benzene and nitrates due to the 3 nitro groups. Bees are perfect as after the first few times of receiving the sugar water after sniffing out the explosives, they will detect the explosive without the sugar water at the end as this is classical conditioning, like Pavlov and his dogs. I got my research from a newspaper website which will exaggerate facts and statistics to make the article more appealing to the reader, making the article less credible. Another website I used was How Stuff Works which still wants to look interesting to the reader but presented more credible facts and statements than The Telegraph.


  2. Sniffer bees and TNT

    In the lab we have created 2 hydroxy-benzanoic acid and we have also made aspirin. These are both similar to T.N.T. (trinitrotoluene) as they all contain a benzene ring in their structure. However with aspirin and 2 hydroxy-benzanoic acid, I have noticed that these structures contain carboxyl groups whereby the T.N.T. doesn’t posses this functional group. Instead it has a methyl group on carbon 1 and Nitrogen dioxide on carbons 2,4 and 6. As you progress from 2 hydroxy-benzanoic acid to aspirin, all that occurs is that an alcohol group is removed and an acetyl group is added. However there seems to be a big change between T.N.T. and Aspirin.

    Furthermore, it is quite simple to make T.N.T. as you start with dissolving acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin) in some warm sulphuric acid. After doing this you then add either Sodium or Potassium Nitrate which then nitrates the purified aspirin. The whole mixture is then filtered and washed with distilled water to obtain the final product.

    As we know, Benzene is quite unreactive due to the pi rings it contains, which shares the charge around the ring so it maintains a low charge density. Then by adding an alcohol group to the benzene it becomes a phenol- an acid because it donates Hydrogen ions. This increases the charge density and makes it more reactive. Good fuels such as petroleum make bonds between Oxygen and Hydrogen, which release a lot of energy when they are formed. When nitro- compounds like T.N.T. are exploded, they form Nitrogen- Nitrogen triple bonds are formed which releases an extremely large amount of energy. The reaction is also very fast because the oxygen in these compounds oxidise it and the short distance between the atoms cause a faster reaction also. This
    made it a good explosive to use on the battlefields. Another good reason for it being used in warfare is that it has a melting point of 800C which allows it to be easily poured into containers in a molten state safely.

    Sniffer bees are being used to detect T.N.T. mines in Bosnia from the war in 1992. It is estimated that one million mines were planted in a three-year period which still need to be found. Biologists in France and Croatia have claimed to have successfully bred bees to detect T.N.T. By adding sugar syrup to the top of the explosive and hiding it, the bees were able to discover it due to their very good sense of smell due to a sensitive antennae- apparently as good as dogs. The scientists say that they are easier to train, can easily get a high number of them and are just as good as sniffer dogs. They were trained in the same way as Pavlov’s dogs whereby they the sugar water with the smell of the explosives. It only takes a few exposures to the scent of the explosives for the conditioning to work. They realised when they trapped bees in a container with chemical components used in explosives, the antenna would extend. By using a piece of monitoring equipment to detect the extension of the antenna. When this is detected in the field, the researchers would then have an indication that there is an explosive nearby.

    They seem like a very suitable for the task as they’re are very easy to train and can be mass produced quickly and cheaply. Due to their very sensitive antenna, they will be able to detect the scent of an explosive with great efficiency making them a very good fit for the current job in Bosnia and for in the future.

    .. (2012). Plastic explosive from aspirin. Available: Last accessed 6th July 2016.
    .. (2016). TNT. Available:…/TNT.asp. Last accessed 6th July 2016.
    .. (2016). ‘Sniffer bees’ reared to detect landmines in Balkans. Available: › News › World News › Europe › Bosnia. Last accessed 6th July 2016.
    .. (2016). How can you train honeybees to sniff for bombs?. Available: Last accessed 6th July 2016.

    Jonathan Totty


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