Sunday, 18 October 2015

So basic: Bees apparently can’t resist caffeinated nectar

OCTOBER 16, 2015

by Eric Hopton

Bees, like too many humans, can be tricked into paying a heavy price for a shot of caffeine on their way to work. Work for most bees, involves a lot of nectar collection along with plenty of “waggle dancing” to direct sweet-toothed comrades to the rich sticky pollen of their food plants. These activities can be manipulated by duplicitous plants which, by lacing their nectar with caffeine, sucker the insects into believing they are getting a superior product. Sounds like a few mega-sized coffee chains don’t you think?

This is an anomaly in the usually-cosy symbiotic world of plant and pollinator-- and the plants come out here as the clear winners. The nectar of many flowering plants contains caffeine in low concentrations because it works to deter potential herbivorous predators. Caffeine is found in about half of all nectar-producing plants but doesn’t always work in the bees’ favor.

The caffeine con
“We describe a novel way in which some plants, through the action of a secondary compound like caffeine that is present in nectar, may be tricking the honey bee by securing loyal and faithful foraging and recruitment behaviors, perhaps without providing the best quality forage,” says Margaret Couvillon of the University of Sussex.

“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. The duped pollinators forage and recruit accordingly” adds Roger Schürch, of the University of Sussex and the University of Bern.

Earlier studies showed honey bees were better at learning and remembering particular scents when they are under the influence of caffeine which suggested a possible role for “reward pathways” in the bees’ brains.

“I could not help but wonder how caffeine would affect the natural behaviors as seen in the field,” says Couvillon.

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