Caffeine gives Bees a Buzz

Writers, as well as lots of other folk, believe they need to be caffeinated to discover their creative side and help burn the midnight oil. The downside of drinking coffee and other caffeine-rich drinks is physical dependence, with withdrawal symptoms starting at surprising low levels of consumption of one cup of strong coffee per day, or equivalent to 100 mg of caffeine.

Bees too get hooked on caffeine, because it boosts their memory.  Caffeine is found in many flowering plants where it can affect bee behavior at much lower concentrations than are present in coffee, tea, cacao, and yerba mate.

When researchers at the University of Sussex offered nectar feeders to honey bees, the insects remembered the ones that contained tiny traces of caffeine and returned again and again. At first sight, it’s an odd finding because the compound is thought to be present in some plants as a deterrent against animals that might eat them, because it has a bitter taste and is somewhat toxic. The bees that found the caffeinated nectar performed the famous waggle dance when they went home to their hive, which was a coded navigation instruction for their sisters to find the source. But the bees returning from control feeders danced less and persuaded fewer of their sisters to find their food, even though the nutrients and energy in the nectar sources were identical.

The difference between the experimental and control nectar was like comparing a “sports energy drink” like Rockstar Energy Shot, which contains a whopping 230 mg caffeine and only 10 calories per serving according to Consumer Reports, with Crush Orange soda, which is caffeine-free but has 160 calories. The first drink provides the sensation of energy while the second provides real energy.

Our lesson is that plants can fool bees, because when flowers offer more caffeine they get more attention, and better pollination services. The bees get nothing out of it, and might even be losers if the caffeine-rich nectar they prefer is nutritionally inferior. Of course, a bee brain is so tiny it is easily fooled, but caffeine-rich plants are duping big brains too.

Caffeine boosts human attention and memory by potentiating neural traffic in the synapses of the hippocampus and neocortex. We enjoy its effects, but the coffee plant and other caffeinators are coercing us into helping them to proliferate, just as they do with the bees. Coffee plants probably originated in the Ethiopian Highlands, but our liking of the caffeine kick has made us propagate the plants across three continents, now generating over seven billion kilograms of coffee beans for our habit. That is the second most valuable traded commodity in the world, and has zero nutritional benefit.

Out of Africa

Out of Africa

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About Roger Gosden

I took early retirement from my post as Professor & Research Director in Reproductive Biology at Cornell Medical College in New York City to concentrate on writing about science and nature,
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