Some promising technologies fizzled. The Defense Department invested more than $2 million in the Stealthy Insect Sensor Project, including extensive research at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where the "Manhattan Project-like" effort that Abizaid had called for had realized its goal: a nuclear bomb. Various engineers were pursuing the "scientific molecular sniffer" that Abizaid had also envisioned shortly after taking over at Centcom in 2003, but Los Alamos hoped to exploit the honeybee's keen sense of smell as a means to detect explosives.
Researchers placed each bee in a tiny harness, exposed the insects to various explosive scents for six seconds, and then provided a sugar water reward. This Pavlovian conditioning soon caused a bee to extend its proboscis -- tongue -- in anticipation of sugar whenever it detected a whiff of TNT or C-4 plastic explosive. A small television camera placed in a box where the bees were harnessed would allow a soldier watching a monitor to see whether the "proboscis extension reflex" signaled the presence of explosives. In 2004, bees had stuck out their tongues at 50 pounds of TNT in a simulated IED, according to Robert Wingo, a Los Alamos chemist.
Votel's reaction upon learning of the project was typical: "What?" The practical applications in combat seemed limited. "How do we operationalize this?" he asked. "How does, say, 1st Platoon manage their bees?" Among other problems, harnessed bees tended to be short-lived. After an analysis concluded that the honeybee's "explosive-detection capabilities have significant reliability issues," as a Defense Department official put it earlier this year, the Pentagon withdrew its support.