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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

New research: Caffeine helps bumble bees pollinate better

Previous studies had noted that honeybees that were fed caffeine formed longer-lasting memories - they were able to remember the flying routes and where the best nectar was found.

By: Science Desk | Kochi |
July 30, 2021 9:41:10 pm
Bombus-terrestris_Bombus terrestris on a strawberry flower (M. Fountain via nri.org)

Recently a viral video on TikTok showed a ladybug spinning uncontrollably after drinking a drop of coffee. Though plants use caffeine and related compounds as a pesticide, a shot of caffeine may actually be good for bumblebees, notes a new study.

The study team fed bumblebees a mix of caffeine, sugar and flower aromas before they went foraging. They found that the bees could target specific flowers and also pollinate them effectively.

But why does one need bees to target certain flowers? Many fruit farmers, especially strawberry cultivators use honeybees or special commercial bumblebees to help them pollinate their crops. They are called ‘managed pollinators’. But it has been noted that these bees sometimes get distracted by wildflowers and avoid visiting the flowers of the fruit plants.

The new study wanted to check if inexperienced bumblebees (Bombus terrestris audax) could locate new food sources that were emitting a certain odour. The bees would be trained with a caffeine cocktail – caffeine, sugar and the specific flower smell – before leaving their hive.

Previous studies had noted that honeybees that were fed caffeine formed longer-lasting memories — they were able to remember the flying routes and where the best nectar was found.

“In our laboratory experiment we found that the bees we had trained using the caffeine/sugar/odour priming treatment were much more interested in the target flowers with the strawberry odour, compared to the distractor flowers,” says Sarah Arnold, a researcher at the Natural Resources Institute (NRI) of the University of Greenwich in the UK in a release. The findings were published recently in Current Biology.

“We can help guide that behaviour and enhance their performance in the field”, explains Dr Arnold, “by giving them a little bit of priming or pre-training within the nest. This can have implications in farming, and it gives us insights into how bees think and learn, so it tells us a bit about how caffeine works in their brains.”

“It’s like a person drinking coffee while revising for an exam. We generally know how coffee helps us concentrate and stay focussed, as well as helping us remember complex information better, and what our limit is. We’ve shown that caffeine increases the bees’ enthusiasm and activity generally and it makes the memory formation stronger,” she adds. “Fascinatingly, it shows that there are commonalities in the neurobiology between us and bees. Bees have got a brain the size of a grass seed and a very short life span compared to us, but can still accomplish complex tasks.”

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