Sniffer dog Quin helps to save the bumblebee

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Some sniffer dogs sniff out drugs. Some sniff out explosives. But Quin, a brown and white English springer spaniel, is unique: he sniffs out bumblebees.

While other dogs join the fight against terrorism or crime, Quin's remarkable scenting ability has been enlisted in the service of conservation, to track some of Britain's most valuable and best-loved insects which are now in serious decline.

The world's first bumblebee sniffer dog has a simple but demanding job: to find bumblebee nests, which are extremely difficult to detect, far harder to discover than nests of honeybees.

Only by finding nests can researchers build a true picture of bee populations and how fast they are declining. Training Quin to lead the way has been the idea of the new Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BBCT).

The trust's scientists are eager to supplement our knowledge of insects which play a vital role in pollinating many plants, yet are shrinking in numbers for several reasons: the degradation of their traditional habitats such as hay meadows and chalk grassland, the wider use of pesticides in intensive farming, and the introduction of non-native plants into British gardens.

But they have had great difficulty in pinpointing bumblebee nests, which may be a tiny hole concealed under grass, with just the odd bee going in or out every few minutes.

Quin, 30 months old and from an animal rescue home, has been trained by the Defence Animal Centre (DAC) at Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire, which produces sniffer dogs with more traditional targets for the Army and other government agencies such as the Immigration Service, Customs and Excise, and the Prison Service.

It was third time lucky for the DAC in trying to produce a bumblebee dog for the trust: two earlier apprentice dogs had not made the grade, the first losing interest and the second not being able to work when on a lead.

But over a month, Quin was trained to sniff out bumblebee nest material provided by the BBCT, and now he has proved his ability by finding several nests.

He will be handled by Joe Waters, a PhD student at Southampton University who is studying bumblebee ecology, and his first assignment will be tracking nests in meadows on the Hebridean island of Tiree.

Joe's technique is to reward Quin with a tennis ball whenever he succeeds. "He believes the ball appears magically from the bumblebee nests, then I play with him for a while, to reinforce the fact that finding nests results in great fun," said Joe, 33.

Quin likes his job. He bounds enthusiastically through the grassland until he picks up the scent, then goes into more intense sniffing mode, with his short tail wagging rapidly.

When he locates the nest, he stops in an unmistakable rigid stance, looking directly at the source of the smell. (It is a curious, strong, but not unattractive honey-like smell, like Christmas cake.)

Ben Darvill, co-founder of the BBCT and another bumblebee PhD student, said: "Our problem has been, when people ask us how bumblebees are doing, without knowing the numbers of nests we can't really tell. We needed a trained badger - because they are good at finding bumblebee nests - or a trained dog. So I called the DAC."

Quin was trained by the civilian side of the DAC, which is run by Glendale Facilities. The company charged only a small proportion of the average £7,000 fee for training a sniffer dog, according to the general manager, Bob McCullum.

"Quin had a training programme of four to five weeks," he added. "He was enthusiastic, and he took to it pretty quickly."