Screening cargo for illicit substances is in need of rapid high-throughput inspection systems that accurately identify suspicious cargo. Here we investigate the ability of a parasitic wasp, Microplitis croceipes
to detect and respond to methyl benzoate, the volatile component of cocaine, by examining their response to training concentrations, their sensitivity at low concentrations, and their ability to detect methyl benzoate when two concealment substances (green tea and ground coffee) are added to the testing arena. Utilizing classical associative learning techniques with sucrose as reward, we found that M. croceipes
learns individual concentrations of methyl benzoate, and they can generalize this learning to concentrations 100× lower than the training concentration. Their sensitivity to methyl benzoate is very low at an estimated 3 ppb. They are also able to detect methyl benzoate when covered completely by green tea, but were not able to detect methyl benzoate when covered completely by coffee grounds. Habituation to the tea and coffee odors prior to testing improves their responses, resulting in effective detection of methyl benzoate covered by the coffee grounds. With the aid of the portable device called ‘the wasp hound’, the wasps appear to have potential to be effective on-site biosensors for the detection of cocaine.