When a honeybee is given a dose of cocaine, it gets overexcited about poor-quality food and performs overenthusiastic dances to communicate with its hivemates, according to an odd new study that got bees hooked on drugs. The research found similarities between honey bees and humans, in that they are both are driven by rewards and both have their judgment altered by cocaine. “This is the first time that it’s been shown that cocaine has been rewarding to an insect” [Reuters], says study coauthor Andrew Barron.
After a honeybee has been out foraging for food, it returns to the hive and tells the other bees what it found by means of a “waggle dance” that describes the location and quality of the food source. But after dabbing low doses of cocaine on the bees’ backs before they went out, the researchers observed that when they returned they were more likely to dance for their nest mates, and performed particularly vigorous routines explaining where the food was located [The Guardian]. They performed these exuberant dances even when the food source that the researchers provided was a weak sugar water solution that didn’t merit the hive’s attention.
In the study, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, researchers explain that the cocaine didn’t interfere with the bees ability to give accurate directions. “It’s not like they’re gyrating wildly on the dance floor out of control,” [said] study leader Gene Robinson…. “This is a patterned response. It gives distance information, location information. That information is intact.” It’s just that bees are communicating about a food source they normally would ignore because of poor quality or lack of need [HealthDay News]. Researchers say the cocaine acts on a neurochemical called octopamine that’s plentiful in the brains of foraging honeybees and which is linked to the reward system in mammals; previous studies have shown that increasing octopamine in bee brains causes them to dance more vehemently.
In another experiment, the researchers determined that the bees had withdrawal symptoms when their daily cocaine regimen was abruptly halted. The research team kept the bees on a cocaine diet for a week while teaching them to distinguish between a vanilla and a lemon scent. “The poor little buggers had to drink cocaine for a week. Then we just stopped it dead and we gave them a learning test,” said Barron. “Their performance absolutely crashed” [The Guardian].
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Image: flickr / Carly & Art