Nature is just as cutthroat as human society, with plenty of trickery and manipulation as the average office building. One piece of proof lies in the relationship between flowers and bees. Scientists have just learned that some blooms lace their nectar with caffeine to turn their pollinators into little buzzing addicts.
The caffeine attracts bees to specific flowers, and they enjoy the high so much that they’ll keep returning to the flower for another fix at the expense of other, decaf blooms. And that laser focus isn’t the best thing for the colony at large, the Washington Post reported.
“What I think it does is make them exploited pollinators,” said scientist Margaret Couvillon. “The plants are tricking them into foraging in ways that benefit the plant, not the bee.”
Though the insects get a little high on the caffeine and presumably enjoy it as much as people do, the benefit really lies with the flower. They don’t need to make more nectar because the addicted bees will keep coming back again and again. In the end, they make less honey.
But don’t feel too sorry for the bees — they’re not exactly the best partners either, James Neh, of UC San Diego, told New Scientist. They like to gnaw through flowers to reach the nectar and avoid carrying the pollen — which is their role in this supposedly harmonious relationship.
“Nature is not big on honesty unless it’s somehow enforced. It’s kind of an arms race.”
Scientists were inspired to examine bees’ love for caffeine by the results of a previous study. This one learned that bees who consumed caffeine learned new flowers quickly and retained that knowledge for a while. That should make them better pollinators. But it doesn’t.
Couvillon gave the bees some caffeinated sugar water in the same concentrations that would be found in nectar and kept track of each individual bee by gluing “number tags on their backs, like little football jerseys.”
The bees loved the caffeinated feeders, but after three hours, the supply dried up. It didn’t matter — they still needed their fix.
“These poor bees came back for four or five days afterwards, and they were kind of desperate.”
They also had the jitters. Couvillon said caffeine made the bees “enthusiastic dancers,” much more so than their decaf-drinking friends. And these jitters convinced other bees to go after the caffeinated nectar, too.
The jittery bees actually did forage more often, but they kept checking caffeine-laced flowers and danced a lot to alert the colony where the good stuff was kept. As a result, they ignored the flowers that wouldn’t give them the high they wanted so desperately.
And it only took one, three-hour exposure on one day to get them hooked. They returned, even if the feeder was empty, the next day — and the next, and the next, and the next.
As a control, other bees weren’t given caffeine, and these guys checked familiar flowers and looked for new ones. That’s what they’re supposed to do for the good of the colony.
Caffeine is found in the nectar of citrus plants and, understandably, coffee plants. The flowers know full well what they’re doing: they drug their pollinators to make sure they do their job, and frequently. The plants caffeinate their roots and leaves to deter herbivores since it tastes bitter.
But nectar is sweet and yummy — the perfect place for their drug of choice.
So far, scientists don’t think it’s harmful for the insects to be addicted to caffeine, besides the negative effect on the colony. They’re still getting nectar, so “it’s not a complete and total disaster,” Couvillon noted.
It certainly proves that nature is ruthless and that everyone needs a morning cup of coffee.
“As with many partnerships, there’s potential for conflict. One side will always want to cheat the other if they could get away with it.”
[Photo Courtesy Svietlieisha Olena / Shutterstock]