Are Honey Bees Hooked on Caffeine and Nicotine?


Have you noticed your honeybees buzzing around the coffee grounds in your compost pile on a warm day in early spring? it turns out, there may be a reason for this common behaviour — the bees might be seeking a hit of caffeine!

Researchers at the University of Haifa-Oranim have learned that bees are attracted to nectar with microscopic amounts of caffeine or nicotine. Is this evolution’s way of getting bees addicted to certain plants that contain those substances?

Flowers produce nectar, a sweet substance composed of mostly sugars, as a way of attracting pollinators to the plant. But some species of plants produce nectar that contains very tiny amounts of substances known to be toxic. The garden perennial Nicotiana, also known as “flowering tobacco,” for example, has tiny amounts of nicotine in its nectar, and caffeine is present in small concentrations in the nectar of citrus flowers, especially grapefruit flowers.

Bees are attracted to nectar with microscopic amounts of caffeine or nicotine… Is this evolution’s way of getting bees addicted to certain plants?

The research team at the Department of Environmental and Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Science Education of the University of Haifa-Oranim, headed by Professor Ido Izhaki, have discovered that bees actively prefer the “addictive” nectar over “clean” nectar.

While it’s difficult to know for sure whether the addictive substances in nectar evolved as a way to make pollination more efficient, they say, the study does suggest that “the plants that survived natural selection are those that developed ‘correct’ levels of these addictive substances, enabling them to attract and not repel bees, thereby giving them a significant advantage over other plants.” Whether the bees actually become addicted to nicotine and caffeine, however, is still a matter for future study.

Photo credit: ‘Spring‘ by: David McLeish
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