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By Alison Boyle on

Busy Bees

Magnified bee from George Adams' Essays on the Microscope, 1787 (Science Museum).

Recently, searching the physics collections on our object database, I was intrigued by an entry for a ‘radiation detector built to detect bees marked with radium’. Some research from our wonderful volunteer Eduard revealed more.

A discharge (gas) tube from Gilbert Tomes's bee detector (Science Museum).

The device was designed by Gilbert Tomes in the early 1940s. Tomes, a keen amateur apiarist, was seeking a way to track swarms by detecting when the queen bee left the hive. He tried tagging the queen with a tiny magnet to trigger a circuit as she left  – but as you might imagine, attaching magnets to bees was a tricky job.

Dabbing them with luminous paint proved somewhat easier, but Tomes’s photocell detector setup was triggered by other light sources as well as the painted bees. Then he remembered that the luminous paint contained radium (despite increasing awareness of its dangers from the early 20th century, radium paint was widely used in WW2-era instruments).

As part of their work for the Baird Television company, Tomes and his colleague Alec Tidmarsh had been investigating Geiger-Muller tubes, which at the time were little used outside scientific circles. They made a simple device to detect the radioactive bees, which they showed to London Zoo‘s head beekeeper. Impressed, he sent a story to the Press Association, and suddenly the ‘Tomes Queen Detector’ was big news.

Tomes and Tidmarsh were deluged with requests for their Geiger counters and a few years later founded 20th Century Electronics (now Centronic), which became a global leader in detector technology.

Woodcut of bees in a herbal encyclopedia, 1497 (Science Museum).

Perhaps the company’s success improved Tomes’s wife’s opinion of his bee research. In his diaries on 19 September 1941, Gilbert noted: ‘Feeding bees with sugar syrup.  This was rather a sticky business and Mary did not like her kitchen being taken over.  She wanted to know why we had to feed the bees when they were supposed to be feeding us with honey’.