When George Mason University opened its Forensic Science Research and Training Laboratory in the spring of last year, it became just the eighth location in the world capable of performing outdoor forensic research using human donors—and the only one in the Mid-Atlantic region.
The new 5-acre facility is situated in a heavily wooded area on the university’s Science and Technology (SciTech) Campus. Also located on that campus? The Honey Bee Initiative. And while that may feel like just a random fact, the unique collaboration the two disciplines have started up makes it anything but that.
In a new project, researchers from a number of different fields are now working in unison on the SciTech campus to see if the honey produced by bees after feeding on flowers can help investigators better locate missing persons.
Proteins in bee honey contain biochemical information regarding what the bees have fed upon. Non-forensic researchers have already proven the strength of these proteins, going as far as using the chemical information to identify specific types of pesticides used within a 5-mile radius of bee hives. The researchers are hoping to expand on that idea in the context of decomposition of the human body.
“Outdoor crime scenes have always posed a challenge to investigators, particularly identifying the location of human remains. The bee research will allow us to scientifically demonstrate that identifying bee activity in bee farms or in the wild and analyzing their proteins can help lead investigators to human remains,” said Mary Ellen O’Toole, the head of the Forensic Science Program within Mason and a former FBI profiler. “In this case, the bees are our new partners in crime fighting, and that’s amazing science.”
O’Toole and her team believe that volatile organic compounds (VOCs) of human decomposition might be found in bee honey. Their belief is based on the premise that flowering plants near dead bodies will uptake the VOCs before being fed upon by the bees and ultimately deposited in their honey. If that’s the case, analysis of the proteins in the honey could yield a lead for investigators to focus their search area for missing human remains.
To put their idea to the test, in November, researchers planted several different species of plants—chosen by Mason’s Greenhouse and Gardens sustainability program manager as a favorite of the bees—in spots throughout a 1-acre section of the Forensic Science Research and Training Laboratory that will house the remains of human donors soon. Additional plants native to the area will also be planted in the spring before the first honey samples are examined.
For that analysis, the team is turning to another SciTech colleague. Alessandra Luchini, an associate professor within Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine (CAPMM), has developed a method to successfully extract proteins from bee honey. She and Lance Liotta, CAPMM co-founder and co-director, have been involved with the project from the beginning, following the idea’s origins at one of the monthly research meetings with the Forensic Science Program.
“If we can determine what the VOCs are for humans and differentiate that from other animals, we could then use the bees and their honey as sentinels, and, hopefully, find missing persons and solve cases,” said Anthony Falsetti, an associate professor of forensic science.
O’Toole says these capabilities could ultimately help spare grieving families long-term uncertainty, while also saving investigators thousands of hours and resources in the search for a missing person.
Photo: Volunteers plant perennials at the Forensic Science Research and Training Laboratory in support of ongoing research to determine if traces of human remains can be identified in the plants or in the honey produced by pollinators. Credit: Shelby Burgess/Strategic Communications