Bees are just as addicted to caffeine as you are

Bees prefer flowers laced with caffeine, researchers find, and even try to lead their bee buddies to the wake-up juice with "waggle dances." Could pumpkin spice pollen be far behind?

Danny Gallagher
CNET freelancer Danny Gallagher has contributed to Cracked.com, Mental Floss, Maxim, Break.com, Mandatory, Jackbox Games, Geeks Who Drink and many, many other publications in his never-ending quest to bring the world's productivity to a screeching halt. He lives and works in Dallas. Email Danny.
Danny Gallagher
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If you think I'm going to make a joke about bees getting their daily "buzz" here, you're sorely mistaken. Video screenshot by Danny Gallagher/CNET

Some of us can't start our day unless we've sucked down a steaming cup of joe or a couple of cans of soda to get that delicious, daily fix of caffeine. Heck, some of us are so addicted to the stuff, we'd hook up to an IV latte drip to get it injected directly into our bloodstreams every morning if we could.

But humans may not be the only species on Earth that have to bear with the burden of a crippling caffeine addiction. Researchers from the University of Sussex in England and the University of Bern in Switzerland discovered that bees love the stuff and that flowers may be using that addiction to their advantage.

They published their study Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

The study looked at the behavior patterns of three hives containing tagged honeybees. Researchers observed the bees as they collected nectar from one of two feeders. One contained an "unscented sucrose solution" and the other "caffeine at a concentration found naturally in nectar," according to the study.

Researchers found that the bees did more foraging after they collected the nectar that contained caffeine and even tried to recruit their fellow foragers to the sources that contained caffeine with "waggle dances," a movement pattern that bees use to communicate the distance and direction of food sources. The study says the bees were also less inclined to seek out other sources of nectar and even quadrupled their recruitment behavior once they got a taste of the magical wake-up juice.

"The effect of caffeine is akin to drugging, where the honey bees are tricked into valuing the forage as a higher quality than it really is," Roger Schürch, a biostatistician at the University of Bern's Clinical Trials Unit, said in a statement. "The duped pollinators forage and recruit accordingly."

This could mean the flowers are using naturally occurring caffeine to entice the bees back to their nectar. Unfortunately, this may come at a cost to the bees' colonies. Researchers also ran a simulated computer model of the bees' nectar collection patterns using data collected from their experiments. They found that the caffeine-laced nectar had smaller concentrations of sugar and could lead to weight loss among the bees in the colony and even a decrease in honey production, according to the study.

"Overall, caffeine causes bees to overestimate forage quality, tempting the colony into sub-optimal foraging strategies, which makes the relationship between pollinator and plant less mutualistic and more exploitative," according to the study's summary.

Bees aren't the only insect to get a kick from caffeine. The coffee berry borer beetle of Central Africa loves the stuff so much that it burrows into a coffee bean and can withstand the fatal equivalent of 500 shots of espresso for a 150-pound (68-kilogram) human.

They spend most of their life in the bean and have been known to reduce coffee crops by up to 80 percent. A study published in July found that these beetles have special bacteria living in their digestive tract that allow them to safely absorb the caffeine and suggested developing a method to disrupt these bacteria that could turn caffeine into a natural pesticide.

Mark my words. These studies are going to lead to Starbucks opening a series of very, very tiny stores that look like plants.