Bumblebees sought out flowers with nicotine in their nectar, and the drug appeared to enhance the bees' memories. Christopher Intagliata reports.
We humans enjoy coffee and tea, to give our brains a caffeine boost. And bees sometimes sip nectar that naturally contains caffeine, which seems to enhance their memory. Now a study suggests that bees enjoy another familiar drug produced by plants: nicotine.
"As it turns out, not just in humans, but even the bees seem to have difficulties quitting." Lars Chittka, a professor of behavioral and sensory ecology at Queen Mary University of London.
Chittka and his colleagues studied bumblebees as they visited fake flowers that contained varying levels of nicotine. Unnaturally high nicotine concentrations deterred the bees. But at real-world levels, the drug attracted bees. And they even learned a flower's color faster, if that flower offered a nicotine fix.
Sometimes bees paid a steep price for this preference. "They returned actually to flowers that had previously sold them nicotine, so to speak, even if these flowers no longer contained nectar."
Which might give nicotine-pushing plants, like tobacco, an edge. "It provides these plant species with an unfair advantage over competing plants, because they can retain the faithful services of pollinators, even if they're offering suboptimal nectar in this case."
The results are in the journal Scientific Reports. [D. Baracchi et al., Nicotine in floral nectar pharmacologically influences bumblebee learning of floral features]
And if caffeine and nicotine have these effects on bees? Perhaps natural floral pharmacies stock other drugs too—that enhance pollination, and give bees a buzz.
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]