Hooked on Flowers: Scientists Use Nicotine to Get Bees Addicted to Colorful Crops

While the floral industry employs an estimated 90,427 people in the U.S., one large section of workers is often forgotten and isn’t included in this number.

They’re yellow and black and help to pollinate the entire world. Bees, the little insect that is often swatted at and seen as a pesky annoyance, are responsible for bringing multiple different crops to the dinner tables worldwide. But their population is dwindling, and scientists are getting rather worried.

According to research from the UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, a quarter of all native bee species are at risk of extinction. Considering that these insects, that look a lot like little flying submarines, pollinate 70 of the world’s 100 most consumed crops, consumers everywhere will be affected if these bees cease to exist. This is even if they do pollinate slowly considering they only fly at a rate of 15 miles per hour.

The American diet, for starters, will be entirely changed and wiped out if the bees disappear. Some common crops that owe their livelihoods to bees include avocados, coffee, berries, oranges, and almonds. This means we can wave goodbye to brunch as we know it without the help of these apprentice florists.

However, some forward-thinking researchers have discovered a way to inspire bees to literally become addicted to flowers.

Nationwide, men have a higher rate of addiction than women, and it is this fact that inspired researchers to test the idea of addiction on bees. So, they have experimented with nicotine as a way to train bees to recognize specific colors of flowers.

Scientists at Queen Mary University of London created a unique experiment that used two different control groups of different colored flowers. They laced blue flowers with a plain sugar solution, similar to what the bees are attracted to in the wild, and purple flowers with the sugar solution mixed with nicotine. After releasing 60 bees into their artificial garden, scientists noted that bees overwhelmingly chose the nicotine-laced flowers. But, what was interesting is that the bees almost immediately left the purple flowers because the nicotine concentration was way too high.

So, the scientists switched the flowers and put the nicotine in the blue ones. When the bees were released, they still were attracted to the purple flowers as they associated that color with the extra nicotine treat. This addictive-like behavior was groundbreaking, as bees only have brains about the size of a pinhead, and is allowing researchers more information on how these little insects go about completing and performing complex tasks.

Professor Lars Chittka from QMUL’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, explains to Science Daily that their experiment mimicked how bees see flowers in nature:

“Flowers typically reward pollinators ‘honestly’ with rewards such as sweet nectar, but nature’s trick box is endlessly resourceful: some plant species gain an unfair advantage over competing species by spiking their nectar with addictive substances, such as nicotine in tobacco flowers. Here we find that bees not only remember such flowers better but even keep coming back for more when these flowers are demonstrably poorer options as if they were truly hooked on these flowers.”

This experiment continues to drive home the idea that bees are quite intelligent animals. Previously, the scientists have proven that bees can pull strings as a way to get food, and they can be trained to roll balls and score goals for a means of a reward.

As for the bee’s nicotine consumption, other researchers at the Royal Holloway, University of London have found that bumblebees that are infected by parasites actively look for flowers with naturally occurring nicotine in their nectar. They believe this is the way bees are able to fight off their infection, as the substance can hinder the progression of the disease in sick bees. However, when consumed regularly by healthy bees, nicotine can be quite harmful.

In addition, this research has led scientists to believe that plants may be able to manipulate pollinator behavior as a way to attract bees for their own good. This means that flowers are able to create popular pesticides within themselves that can make specific flowers and crops addictive to bees, despite their high level of toxicity.

The co-author of the study, David Baracchi, believes that these nicotine findings are just the start of something exciting when it comes to furthering bee research.

According to Science Daily, he said, “I am convinced that what we found with this study is just the tip of the iceberg. Plants may have hundreds of metabolites in their nectars and it is possible that many of them have to some degree similar psychoactive properties.”

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