Caffeine-addicted beetles cutting into coffee bean crops

The coffee berry borer has become a huge pain in the thorax for the coffee industry since it can withstand huge doses of caffeine by burrowing into beans. So why didn't they call this thing the jitterbug?

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
2 min read

Hypothenemus hampei, better known as the coffee berry borer, could be the next big thing standing in the way of you and your coffee other than that person who holds up the line at Starbucks so they can post a photo to their Instagram that shows they are in the line at Starbucks. L. Shyamal/Wikimedia

Coffee is one of the greatest liquids on this plane of existence. A world without coffee would lead to the end of productivity and civilization as we know it.

That's why the coffee industry is very concerned about an annoying little insect that's cutting into the crops that make our magic wake-up juice.

The coffee berry borer, a beetle that's endemic to Central Africa but can also be found in countries that produce coffee beans, is Public Enemy No. 1 for the coffee industry. This beetle can burrow its way into a coffee bean and withstand a massive amount of caffeine -- normally a powerful insecticide -- for its tiny size. It is estimated that it can withstand the fatal equivalent of 500 shots of espresso for a 150-pound human and cut a crop of coffee beans by 80 percent, according to a statement from the US Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California.

So what's being done to combat this tiny coffee grinder? The answer may lie in a study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications written by researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley lab, the US Department of Agriculture and El Colegio de la Frontera Sur in Mexico.

The beetle spends most of its natural life in the coffee bean, despite the heavy presence of caffeine that is harmful to most insects and works as a natural pesticide against other creepy crawlies, according to the Berkeley Lab.

Researchers discovered 14 bacterial species in the beetles' digestive tract that allow it to safely live in the bean by breaking down the caffeine before it can kill them. Javier Ceja-Navaro, a Lawrence Berkeley scientist who co-authored the study, said in the statement that the beetle's populations in coffee bean crops could be reduced without the use of pesticides if we can "develop a way to disrupt the bacteria and make caffeine as toxic to this pest as it is to other insects."

Another solution could come from our fine, feathered friends. A study published in 2014 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggested that having more trees near coffee bean farms could reduce the spread of these pesky invaders. Researchers set up a computer model of Jamaican coffee farms that showed that crops that were closer to a high population of trees would attract more birds that eat insects.

I know I speak for all coffee lovers when I urge these or any researchers to do something to fix this immediately. I don't ever want to reach a day when our coffee crops are so depleted that we have to eat caffeine-infested beetles to get our morning jolt. Then again, eating bugs might be a lot cheaper than Starbucks.

(Via io9)