MANASSAS, Va. — Even among nature’s hardest workers, the buzz around bees reaches a whole other level: now, as crime scene investigators.
“We know that bees fly within probably no more than a five-mile radius of their beehive,” said Mary Ellen O’Toole, Forensic Science Program director at George Mason University in Virginia. “So, that is incredibly helpful to investigators that have to go out on a case.”
It is all about to unfold within several acres of wooded, fenced-in land.
“We're standing literally in the middle of our body farm,” O’Toole said.
In a five-acre, outdoor forensic lab at GMU, donated human bodies will soon be buried, alongside a variety of plants.
“We have a mixture of native and rare plants,” said GMU’s greenhouse and gardens program manager Doni Nolan. “We're hoping to get the bees attracted to the site.”
Why try to attract bees?
“In their natural activity, honey bees come into contact with flowers, with the bodies of water, with that the soil,” said Alessandra Luchini, GMU professor and Bioscience PhD Program Director. “And, in this coming into contact, they touch - and by touch, they grab molecules.”
That includes grabbing volatile organic compounds – VOC’s – related to when a body decomposes. The bees bring those back to their hive and incorporating it all into their honey.
“If we find a hive and there's evidence of remains and evidence of decomposition, through those VOCs in that honey, we can narrow down that search area quite a bit,” said Ryen Weaver, an adjunct professor with GMU’s Forensic Science Program.
Those VOC’s found in the honey can be detected in a lab.
“Some people may look at that and listen to this and think, ‘oh, that really sounds gross,’ but this is exciting science,” O’Toole said.
She is in a position to know, both as director of GMU’s forensic science program and a former FBI agent.
“For 28 years, I was an agent,” O’Toole said. “I spent a lot of time talking to the Green River Killer, which is our most prolific serial killer in the United States. He left his victims outside. When I think about that, it really becomes crystal clear to me just how valuable this research is.”
To see it for ourselves, we joined the students and faculty as they suited up to learn how to collect the samples from nearby beehives. The beehives are part of a collaborative project with the Honey Bee Initiative and GMU’s School of Business.
Students listened to beekeepers as they showed them how to safely extract samples from the beehive.
“They're passionate,” O’Toole said. “They believe in forensic careers.”
There is also something else, that those involved in the program say goes beyond just closure.
“I don't like the word closure. I feel like closure doesn't help because you don't ever get closure when you lose a family member in the way that we deal with in forensic science - but answers is a big thing,” Weaver said. “So, that's our main goal in anything -- is to help get answers.”