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Bees Buzz on Caffeine, Gives them a Memory Boost

Update Date: Mar 08, 2013 02:54 PM EST

Bees are suckers for caffeine just as many humans are. A new study found that some plants including grapefruit, lemon and oranges, are naturally caffeine-laced plants which gives a memory boost to bees when they consume it.  

However, at low concentrations, caffeine appears to have a secondary advantage, attracting honeybees and enhancing their long-term memory, said lead author Geraldine Wright, a neuroscientist at Newcastle University in England, whose study was published online March 7 in the journal Science.

Researchers fed bees a sugar solution which comprised of caffeinated nectar and discovered they were three times more likely to remember a flower's scent than bees which consumed only the sugar solution.

After 24 hours, the bees that had the caffeine buzz in their systems were three times as likely to remember compared to bees had the sugar solution. After 72 hours they were twice as likely to remember.

"We show that caffeine-a compound whose ecological role is mainly to deter and poison herbivores-actually acts like a drug in an ecologically relevant context," Wright said. "The plant is secretly drugging the pollinator. It may help the bee, but the plant cares more about having a pollinator with high fidelity!"

The study found that bees cannot taste caffeine at levels found in nectar, but the researchers found it affects certain brain cells involved in memory.

"Understanding how bees choose to forage and return to some flowers over others will help inform how landscapes could be better managed.  Understanding a honeybee's habits and preferences could help find ways to re invigorate the species to protect our farming industry and countryside," said co-author, Professor Phil Stevenson, from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and the University of Greenwich's Natural Resources Institute.

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