Bees dig a caffeine buzz too. But why?

Plants have a serious thing for bees and have evolved to go to great lengths to attract their buzzing pals. We know the sweetness of the nectar or the tantalising smell of flowers bring the bees in to get down to the business of pollination. But would you believe some plants actually have small doses of caffeine that have bees coming back again and again?

Anyone who has seen the line at Starbucks before work is sure to understand. We seem to get down to our business just a bit more efficiently.

The low doses of caffeine in certain floral nectar - such as citrus and coffee plants - appears to trigger enhanced memories in bees that brings them back to the plant again and again. That's not just good for the bee but it's also good for the plant - essentially ensuring regular pollination and creating an ecological bond between the two.

The connection was discovered by Dr. Geraldine Wright, neuroscientist at Newcastle University in England. She and her team started with experiments to see if bees associated door with a reward. They used sugar water and low doses of caffeine at the levels you'd find in plants to tempt them. The result was bees that formed a memory associated to the door that gave them the caffeine.

Even more interesting is the fact this wasn't just a quick hit. when exploring the long term effects the researchers found three-times as many bees remembered the scent that carried the caffeine reward 24 hours later, and twice as many remembering even 72 hours later. The researchers then tested the effects of tiny amounts of caffeine on the tiny little neurons in bee brains (Kenyon cells) and found the caffeine did increase sensitivity in those cells - which just happen to be related to learning and memory.

Before we rush to hook up the IV of coffee or straight caffeine, the researchers want to remind us that human brains and insect brains are different and may not necessarily work the same way to actually improve memory.

Sure, we feel alert and on the ball with some caffeine to clear out the cobwebs, but whether that report you just read with your morning cup of joe will be committed to your memory is unclear.

All is not lost, as the researchers do say that the effect on the bees' Kenyon cells is similar to what happens in mice when caffeine affects their hippocampus. Plus, as Dr. Wright was quoted in Science Daily,


"But I think there is overwhelming evidence that we return again and again to consume caffeine because of the way we feel after drinking it," Wright said.

Plus, as The New York Times noted,

"Cori Bargmann of Rockefeller University, who studies the brain and behavior of a microscopic roundworm called Caenorhabditis elegans as saying the bee findings added more support to the idea that some very ancient behaviors like learning must have very deep evolutionary roots. Finding the common neurochemistry in such diverse creatures, she said, is like “learning the vocabulary of the brain.”

While the headline to this story is ultimately about how the buzz affects our friends the bees and what that means for our memory and behavior, lets give a shout out to our clever little friends the flowers.

Far from being just a pretty face on any given plant, they can be lethal death machines and they seem to have some ability to judge the difference. That caffeine in some flowers? Well while it seems to turn the bees on to come back and pollinate like crazy, the doses of caffeine actually kills or deters other critters.

I think most people agree when I say, "take that garden slugs!"

Dr. Geraldine Wright's study was published online, March 7 in the journal Science.

Via The New York Times, Science Daily, National Geographic News