Caffeinated Bees: What’s the Buzz About?

posted: 10/16/15
by: Laine Bergeson
Bee on a flower

If you woke up this morning and made a beeline for the coffee pot, you weren't the only one.

The bees in your neighborhood were likely doing the same thing -- and experiencing both the good and the bad that can come with caffeination.

The naturally-occurring caffeine in some plants' nectar improves bees' memory, which, theoretically, makes them better at pollinating certain plants. And that could have a wider benefit for the ecosystem. Bees are key pollinators for many crops, and understanding more about how and why they gravitate toward certain plants could help with landscape management and biodiversity.

But caffeine can have a drugging effect in bees, and that can keep them coming back to wiley plants that have laced their nectar with the stimulant as a way to mask lower quality nectar, according to new research.

"The effect of caffeine is akin to drugging, where the honey bees are tricked into valuing the forage as a higher quality than it really is," coauthor Roger Schurch said in a release. "The duped pollinators forage and recruit accordingly."

The buzzed bees even kept returning to the caffeine-spiked plants after the nectar had run dry -- an activity that is decidedly unhelpful when it comes to increasing pollination.

What's more, this drugged bee behavior could lead plants to ratchet down the sweetness of their nectar, which could reduce honey production.

The biggest takeaway from the new findings may be that plants and animals can have competing interests, and that they are engaged in an ongoing to struggle to see who comes out on top.

In this case, score one for the plants. "It may be that chemistry is a popular way in which plants can get the upper hand on their pollinators," concluded coauthor Margaret Couvillon.

This post originally appeared on Discovery News


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