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Coffee and Cigarettes Could Protect Bees From Illness?

Feb 18, 2015 11:33 PM EST
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(Photo : Pixabay)

Well... sort of. What we're really talking about here are the main components of those human vices - nicotine and caffeine* - which are normally toxic to our tiny pollinator friends. However, much like some bird species that intentionally consume poisons to kill off intestinal parasites, small concentrations of these toxins could indeed help protect hives from illness.

CCD, or Colony Collapse Disorder, occurs when bees do not have enough energy to make it through winter. Instead, they wake up in the middle of the harsh season and, thinking it's time to go to work, leave their nest to succumb to the elements.

CCD was initially identified as the primary cause of stunning honeybee mass deaths in the United States - a phenomenon scientists first discovered in 2006. Experts suspected and then confirmed that the widespread use of pesticides called neonicotinoids (neonics) were essentially "dirtying the fuel" that these bees used to hibernate, prompting CCD. However, there were other natural causes as well, some of which are kicking bee populations while they are down.

Parasitic mites like Asia's invasive N. ceranae and diseases like American Foulbrood are preventing a swifter recovery of US bee populations even as they drive other pollinator declines in places like Europe and Australia.

Past studies have found that breeding bees for cleanliness or even introducing specialized microbes can help fight infestations. Now a new study argues that plants with caffeine and nicotine components can also help. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Pixabay)

Of course, researchers weren't going to go and intentionally poison the few honeybees that remain for the sake of science. Instead, they set out to see how wild bumblebees use these toxins to self-medicate against a common intestinal parasite called Crithidia bombi.

This parasite may be at least partially responsible for declining wild bee populations, as past research has shown that it causes bees to lose their ability to distinguish between flowers that contain nectar and those that don't. It takes quite a lot of energy for a bee to fly from flower to flower, and if that energy is wasted with no return, a confused and wandering bee could slowly starve to death.

Thankfully, that's where the toxins can be a life-saver.

"We found that eating some of these compounds reduced pathogen load in the bumble bee's gut, which not only may help the individual bees, but likely reduced the pathogen Crithidia spore load in their feces, which in turn should lead to a lower likelihood of transmitting the disease to other bees," researcher Lynn Adler recently explained to Entomology Today.

The researcher and her colleagues identified eight toxic compounds in all that could have medicinal uses for bees: nicotine and anabasine found in nectar of flowers in the tobacco family, caffeine* from coffee and citrus nectar, amygdalin from almond nectar, aucubin and catalpol from turtlehead flowers, gallic acid from buckwheat nectar, and thymol from basswood tree nectar.

They found that anabasine, nicotine, thymol, and catalpol in particualr can reduce infection levels of the bumblebee parasite by as much as 81 percent. And while that's a very specific example, it stands as a proof-of-concept that bees could be using toxins to treat other various illnesses as well.

"The more we look, the more we see that these compounds are in nectar and pollen too," Adler added. "With so many people looking at bee health these days, it's taken a long time for us to realize that perhaps we should be paying attention to how floral secondary compounds mediate pollinator dynamics and their interactions with pathogens."

The full results of the study Adler and her colleague conducted can be found in journal The Proceedings of the Royal Society B.


*CORRECTION: This article initially named caffeine as a toxin that helped stave off Crithidia bombi specifically. However, results of the study found that this was not so.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS.

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