Ep 1: These Bees are the Bomb!

September 13, 2020 MuttStuff Media Season 1 Episode 1
Ep 1: These Bees are the Bomb!
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

On this first episode of BewilderBeasts we explore why farmers are painting eyeballs on cow butts, and we do a deep dive on honeybees who are trained to find buried land mines in Croatia. Let’s go! 

If there are things you’d like me to talk about on the podcast, historical animals who changed the world, animals who help humans, or wacky animals in the news, send them in to:

@BewilderedPod on


About your host:

Melissa McCue-McGrath, CPDT-KA, is a science-based dog trainer outside of Boston, MA, and author of the book, "Considerations for the City Dog" More about Melissa can be found at


Intro Music is “Tiptoe out the back” by Dan Lebowicz
Interstitial music is by MK2
Don’t forget to like, subscribe, review and share with your curious friends.

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Intro/Outtro music: Tiptoe Out The Back - Dan Liebowicz
Interstitial Music: MK2
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Twitter: @BewilderedPod
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Your host, Melissa McCue-McGrath is an author, dog trainer, and behavior consultant in Southern Maine. She'll talk about dogs all day if you let her. You've been warned :)


Hi! Welcome to Bewilderbeasts!  I’m your host, Melissa McCue-McGrath and today on Bewilderbeasts, we’re going to explore why farmers are painting eyeballs on cow butts and do a deep dive on the honeybees who are trained to find buried land mines in Croatia. Let’s go! 


Hi everyone! Welcome to the first ever episode of Bewilderbeasts! Let me give you a little background on this podcast before we jump in, get to know each other a bit. Now, at the beginning of the summer, everything went upsidedown. I know this has been a hard year for a lot of kids and their parents, but Somerville, the city I live in, during this COVID19 experience, lots of people jumped in to help - and here they helped by putting together a free online summer camp for kids. During that virtual summer camp, I volunteered to teach kids about animals - I had no idea what I was doing - I’m just a dog trainer who works with dogs - but I love science, I love animals, and I love fun facts and I LOVE teaching. So I put all those things together for an animal fun class for kids and curious adults where they could learn about animals who changed history - like a cow who was framed for starting the Great Chicago Fire ---spoiler, she didn’t! --- but as a result of the city burning down, the story of the cow inspired another country to help Chicagoans to start what has become the second largest library system in the United States - before this, you had to pay to use the library! We’ll talk more about this story in a future episode - we also talked about animals who help humans (like dogs who can detect COVID19 and cancer), and people who work with animals in case the kids want to grow up and work with animals someday. Many of those topics will be fleshed out here in the Bewilderbeasts, too, but one animal stuck out as my absolute favorite and was the inspiration for this entire podcast!

If you picked this to listen to, THANK YOU. You might have picked it because you are a friend or my kiddo -- Hi Acey!-- Or, you might have noticed a picture with the words “Bewilderbeasts” - a pink flower with a bee - but look carefully at the flower. Did you notice something about it?

There is a cartoon bomb lit in the middle of the flower - and the bee is walking right towards it - and that logo, the logo for this podcast that you are listening to right now, was inspired by the Croatian Bomb Bees, my favorite thing that I learned while I was teaching kids about animals over the summer.

So let’s learn about how bees ½ way across the globe are saving towns and people from certain death from unexploded land mines.

Did you know farmers paint eyes on cow butts protect them from predators? Now, where I live, cows live in fields and there are very few natural predators - except us - but in places where cows live alongside lions, jaguars and other apex predators, cows are easy pickings and delicious dinner. They are often picked off by wolves, large cats, and other predators. 

According to a study from Communications Biology, when researchers painted giant eyes on bovine booties, they observed lions would not pick those cows! While this sounds silly, it makes evolutionary sense. Think about butterflies - some of them have eye shaped patters on their wings to confuse predators - it’s hard to sneak up on someone you think is watching you! So, let’s look at lions - they attack by sneaking up on their prey, so if they are fooled into thinking they are being watched, the lions lose their advantage. AND - according to MentalFloss (my FAVORITE website on the internet) - this works on humans, too! Not that farmers don’t kill cows with eyes, but we fall prey to being watched psychology, too! For example, when bikes were parked near signs featuring eyes had 65% fewer bicycle thefts! So what does this mean for butt bespectacled cattle? For now, it appears eyes painted on their butts work well, but if all cows had these markings, predators might get desperate and still attack a cow, and over time, they might get wise to this - but they might not. 


Let’s get back to THE BEES who started it all for this podcast. Ready for a deep dive? Let’s go!

Why bees? When most people think of explosive detection, we tend to think of bomb sniffing dogs - and by we, I mean I do and I don’t want to speak for everyone here :) However, it turns out using a technique that I use in dog training called “associative learning” works on nearly every animal! This is going to sound super familiar to some of you - does PavLov ring a bell? The key to associative learning is pairing something new that won’t likely cause an instinctive response to something that does. Ivan Pavlov discovered that his dogs would drool every time food was presented to them, but that if a bell rang just before food was presented, the SOUND OF THE BELL would also produce a drool response, even if there was no food. 

So, the quiet ring of a bell instead of a loud boom that causes panic  - my daughter was once playing on a playground and when the Blue Angles kicked off a sonic boom overhead, the entire playground of small kids hit the ground and put their hands over their ears - that’s INSTINCT and isn’t the kind of thing we’d use in associative learning) 

But, here’s the thing - dogs are not the only ones who can learn by associative learning! All animals can learn with this technique and it has many practical applications. For example, my cell phone alert sound is the Mario coin sound PAUSE-add effect

So, when a recent televised basketball game decided to be funny and have that same sound effect every time the home team scored a basket, I felt my body respond - a little burst of adrenaline, “Oh, my phone!” and reached for it. EVERY TIME. And it was a high scoring game. I eventually put my phone in the other room and still found myself reaching for the phone that wasn’t there. 

That sound didn’t always produce a “reach for my phone” response but it does now. And that’s the same for your doorbell, alerts on your phone --- and for animals who find explosives, the smell of explosives = food. 

By taking the scent of explosives and introducing a small amount of that odor - you don’t want to overwhelm the animals! - just before their favorite food shows up, the odor can PREDICT food is on its way.

So why don’t they just use dogs? Well, dogs are pretty expensive to train for this kind of work, plus you need one handler per dog. Dogs are heavy and if they misstep, can set off unexploded explosives. But the two biggest advantages? Bees learn faster - and you can have a swarm of bees on the hunt for underground landmines instead of one or two Labradors. 

Bees can be taught in just two days to seek out novel odors, new scents - including those of the buried landmines in Croatia - remnants of the Croatian war for Independence - otherwise known as the Balkan Wars. 

Since the start of the Balkan war in 1991, it's estimated that around 2,500 people have died from land mine explosions, and the 90,000 mines scattered around the country were placed at random and without any sort of map.

And while it’s impossible to put a leash on a bee - or even tag them with chips that could track them - drones can follow groups of trained bees and see where they congregate - and it worked! By mixing sugar water with a little bit of TNT odor, the bees learned that a little TNT smell, the amount on an underground mine - predicted food for the bee and they were able to lead bomb clearance teams to unexploded landmines so they could be cleared safely, and saved lives. 

Now, unsurprisingly in my line of work, when people discover the can get great behavior with honey, they then decide to try to use a stick. One woman had decided to try to train bees for German police forces by shocking the bees that are sniffing odors like explosives and drugs. So why use shock or pain when sugar water works well? Pavlov’s theory does work in other direction, too - while the dogs heard a bell and would drool for food, you can just as easily condition an anima (or person) to fear something by association as well. For me? I’m scared of spiders - like SUPER scared of spiders. I appreciate them, but I once reacted to the POSSIBILITY of a spider by panicking, jumping backwards, and throwing the table I was sitting at and running to a wall. Phobias suuuuuuuuck. And it was all pure instinct. So, to say I’m afraid of spiders is a bit of an understatement. I’ve worked hard and am getting better - but I still can’t go into fields with tall grass because to me, tall grass = trapped with spiders after an incident when i was a little girl chasing a soccer ball into tall grass, and after getting teh ball, looking around and I was surrounded by spiders. Tall grass = spiders. Tall grass = nervous and anxious. 

My suspicion is that the individuals who want to use shock to train bees to HATE the smell of drugs is hoping for a more visceral resonse from the bees - which might work - but it also might cause the bees to shut down and hate the food they are associating with the shock. If you’ve ever had drink or food that has …. Backfired on you, you might not be able to eat it anymore. And that’s unfortunate. Teaching any animal with cruelty not only harms the animal but is unnecessary and tends to have other consequences as well. 

So be kind to animals - while the saying goes - “you get more with honey than a stick”, you literally get more with sugar than with shock. 


And funnest of fun facts. My name is Melissa and it’s Greek for “honey bee”. 

Melissaphilia means “loves bees” and Melissaphobia means “scared of bees” ---- or terrified of groups of women likely born between 1979 and 1983 named Melissa. As you should be. 

So thanks for joining me today on Bewilderbeasts! I’m still working out the details as this is my first episode, but if there are things you’d like me to talk about on the podcast, historical animals who changed the world, animals who help humans, or wacky animals in the news, send them in to:
BewilderedBeasts on Twitter
BewilderbeastsPod on  facebook
@bewilderbeasts on Instagram

I’m Melissa McCue-McGrath with Muttstuff media - thanks for listening! 

I got today’s information from
Gizmodo, Communications Biology,, Wikipedia, The Times UK, and Howstuffworks.  

Links are in the description of today's episodes

Intro Music is “Tiptoe out the back” by Dan Lebowicz and Interstitial music is by MK2
Don’t forget to like, subscribe, review and share with your curious friends. 
Thanks for listening! 

Cow Butts
Croatian Bomb Detection Bees