Plenty of humans rely on caffeine and nicotine to make it through the day, sometimes to the detriment of their health. However, a new study finds that in bumblebees, the natural caffeine and nicotine they ingest from plant nectar actually makes them less susceptible to illness.
What’s more, what’s good for one bee is good for the whole hive.
“We found that eating some of these compounds reduced pathogen load in the bumble bee’s gut, which not only may help the individual bees, but likely reduced the pathogen Crithidia spore load in their feces, which in turn should lead to a lower likelihood of transmitting the disease to other bees,” said Lynn Adler, one of the co-authors.
Plants, it turns out, can be clever when it comes to self-preservation. Without the mobility needed to ward off predators, they turn to other deterrents. Some plants, like roses, evolved physical barriers like thorns to make eating them a dicey proposition.
Others, like tobacco and coffee plants go the chemical route. The nicotine and caffeine they produce have nothing to do with reproduction or day-to-day existence. Instead, they act as biological irritants for would-be predators. Bees exploit this to ward off disease; humans use them when they need a pick me up.
The findings may change the way growers think about their flower crops, which rely on pollinators like bees to promote growth and diversity. While a flowering tobacco plant may not seem to fit in with the azaleas, what’s good for the bees is usually good for the grower.
“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,” Adler said.
The study included eight chemicals: Nicotine and anabasine found in nectar of flowers in the tobacco family, caffeine from coffee and citrus nectar, amygdalin from almond nectar, aucubin and catalpol from turtlehead flowers, gallic acid from buckwheat nectar, and thymol from basswood tree nectar.