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Nicotine and caffeine can protect bees against parasites

Researchers say the new findings may have important implications for farmers and gardeners who rely on pollinators to bolster their plants.

By Brooks Hays
Nicotine and caffeine can protect bees against parasites
A bee on a blueberry bloom. Photo by Betty Shelton/Shutterstock

AMHERST, Mass., Feb. 18 (UPI) -- Cigarettes cause cancer, among a wide range of other deadly maladies. And too much coffee can encourage anxiety and insomnia. But for bees, a new study finds, a little bit of nicotine and caffeine might be the best way to ward off intestinal parasites.

Some toxins can, when consumed in small amounts, offer health benefits to humans and animals. The Researchers at the University of Massachusetts and Dartmouth College recently found this to be the case for bees.

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As part of the new study, entomologists at the two schools exposed nests of eastern bumblebees (Bombus impatiens) to the intestinal parasite (Crithidia bombi). The researcher then fed the pollinators nectars laced with different naturally occurring toxins.

The toxins, including nicotine and caffeine, were derived from plants which rely on the chemicals to deter predators. Substances produced by plants as a method of defense against herbivores are known as secondary metabolites.

Some of the toxic nectar reduced infection levels by as much as 81 percent among the treated bumblebees. Not only was the pathogen load in the bees' gut diminished, but the parasite's spore load in the bees' feces was also reduced -- decreasing the odds that the parasite could spread to new hosts.

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Crithidia bombi is one of several parasites thats been implicated in colony collapse disorder.

Researchers say the new findings may have important implications for farmers and gardeners who rely on pollinators to bolster their plants.

"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," explained lead author Lynn Adler, an evolutionary ecologist at Amherst. "Having bees consume these protective chemicals could be a natural treatment of the future."

The tested plants and toxins included: nicotine and anabasine from tobacco flower nectar, caffeine from coffee and citrus nectar; amygdalin from almond nectar; aucubin and catalpol from turtlehead flower nectar; gallic acid from buckwheat nectar; and thymol from basswood tree nectar.

Researchers say farmers might consider employing these plants as hedgerows or in a garden adjacent to cash crops.

"A lot of our spices and medicines come from plant secondary metabolites," Adler pointed out. "Think of aspirin and chili powder. Because we're big, we can eat a little chili powder on our food and it's just a taste sensation. But for an insect the same dose might be fatal. That's what the plant is counting on."

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The study was published this week in the Royal Society journal Proceedings B.

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